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Vol. 10, No. 1, François Molle et al.


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Intensification of Rice Cultivation in the Floodplain of the Chao Phraya Delta*

François Molle,** Chatchom Chompadist,*** and Thanawat Bremard**

*This article is dedicated to the late Professor Takaya and his colleagues from Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, who carried out seminal work on the Chao Phraya Delta in the 1970s and 1980s.
**G-Eau, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), 361, rue JF Breton, BP 5095, 34196 Montpellier Cedex 5, France
Corresponding author (Molle)’s e-mail: francois.molle[at]
***ชัชชม ชมประดิษฐ์, Royal Irrigation Department, Samsen Nakornchaisri Dusit Bangkok 10300, Thailand

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_141

Over the past 50 years rice cultivation in Asian deltas has undergone impressive intensification. In the Chao Phraya Delta, Thailand, traditional deepwater and floating rice varieties have gradually been replaced by high-yield varieties (HYVs). However, until recently a floodplain of 300,000 ha was still cultivated with traditional varieties. We analyze how these varieties came to be replaced by single/double cropping of HYVs and describe the new water regime that has been established, taking the Bang Kum drainage basin as an illustration. While the shift brought a welcome increase in rural incomes, we show how the change in water management has had serious negative cross-scale consequences that have not been considered. We end by discussing the government’s plan to alter the water regime in the area again, as part of its “monkey cheek” (flood retarding) policy. We show that rather than enhancing management flexibility and the floodplain’s buffering capacity, as it claims, this policy in fact undermines both.

Keywords: deepwater rice, rice cultivation, flood management, flood retarding basin, Chao Phraya Delta, Thailand

I Introduction

Asian deltas’ landscapes and water regimes—most notably the Pearl River, the Red River, the Mekong, and the Chao Phraya River—have undergone spectacular historical transformations (Catling 1992; Tanaka 1995; Kono 2001; Molle and Dao Thê Tuân 2006; Biggs et al. 2009; Le Thuy Ngan et al. 2018; Nguyen Van Kien et al. 2019). The state and farmers alike have incessantly and relentlessly reshaped their waterscapes through the construction of dams, dikes, canals, drains, sluice gates, and pumps in order to reduce the risk/variability and occurrence of flooding while enhancing the provision of irrigation water to fields. By doing so, they have allowed growth in cropping intensities as well as diversification away from rice to fruit and vegetables or aquaculture, in a typical Boserupian scenario of agricultural intensification (Boserup 1981).

In the Chao Phraya Delta, in central Thailand, considerable changes have taken place, particularly since the early land reclamation in the late nineteenth century and the establishment of irrigation networks in the 1960s and 1970s (Takaya 1986; Kasetsart University and ORSTOM 1996). Patterns of rice cultivation are extremely heterogeneous and combine contrasting cropping intensities (from one to three crops per year), gravity canal irrigation to semi-controlled flood regimes, and High Yield Varieties (HYVs) as well as floating rice cultivated in 3 m-deep waters (Kasetsart University and ORSTOM 1996). Around 2000 the delta had approximately 300,000 ha of flood-prone areas cultivated with “traditional” rice varieties (TVs) (Molle et al. 1999). Although well adapted to flooding, these varieties, and the associated floodwater regime, confined agriculture to a single annual crop with relatively low productivity, which constrained farming systems and farmers’ livelihoods (Kaida 1974; Takaya 1986; Molle and Thippawal 1999).

Unlike the Mekong Delta, where flood-prone areas were gradually diked and protected from heavy floods for most of the year, the Chao Phraya floodplain remained under a semi-controlled water regime whereby the rise in flood level was attuned to the growth of traditional rice varieties. The latest in-depth study of the floodplain concluded that the area was trapped in low-productivity single cropping because it was impossible for managers to prevent these low-lying areas gathering large amounts of excess water during the (late) rainy season1) (Molle et al. 1999). Shifting to HYVs grown outside the flood period would also entail developing the land and irrigation infrastructures as well as increasing water supply at times when it was already insufficient. Any change was therefore deemed unlikely.

This article offers a historical retrospective of the transformations of the Chao Phraya floodplain, building upon seminal works by Takaya Yoshikazu (1986) and Molle et al. (1999; 2001b) on the intensification of rice cultivation in the different sub-ecosystems of the delta. Transformations in the past 20 years were studied based on Landsat and Sentinel images (available through the LandViewer platform), official documents and media releases, and visits to Royal Irrigation Department (RID) regional and local offices as well as to the floodplain itself in 2017–19. After each visit, the information from farmers, officials, and satellite images was triangulated in order to make sense of transformation on the ground. The paper first provides some historical elements on early cultivation of the delta’s floodplain and then describes the gradual shift from traditional deepwater rice cultivation to HYVs, ending with a final watershed transformation around 2010, unpacking the conditions that allowed for this unexpected transformation. To do so, we take the case of the low-lying area of Bang Kum, in Ayutthaya Province. But such a transformation must also be understood through its cross-scale consequences. We show that scaling up the new water management regime associated with the shift to the whole floodplain has crucial delta-wide implications for both dry-season and floodwater management. This provides a fascinating illustration of cross-scale and systemic feedback loops that are hard to anticipate when a coherent global understanding of the water regime is lacking. Finally, we show how an in-depth understanding of the water regime can serve to critically appraise the recent (and flawed) policy of exploiting the floodplain, once again, to mitigate flood intensity in the Chao Phraya Delta and the basin as a whole.

II The Floodplain Management System

II-1 Early Cultivation in Flooded Areas of the Chao Phraya Delta

The cultivation of rice in the floodplain of the Chao Phraya was described by travelers to Siam prior to the twentieth century, often with bewilderment. Pallegoix Mgr. (1976 [1852]) observed, “this river floods and submerges the plain once a year . . . at the end of August it spreads onto the countryside and rises up to one meter and sometimes more above the bank.” All observers noted the random nature of such cultivation, which depended on the extent and duration of the flood, with Pallegoix expressing surprise that “there are some years in which the river floods only part of the plain . . . all the fields which the water cannot reach are lost.” Likewise, as early as 1688 N. Gervaise remarked:

[N]othing is feared more than drought, because it causes the price of rice to increase so much that a quantity that in a year of high rainfall would cost only six francs, in a dry year is worth twenty-nine or thirty francs.

Similar observations also prompted A. E. Stiven (1994 [1903]) to state that “the cultivators . . . are to a large extent at the mercy of the rains and floods. Excessive rain, however, does not cause so much anxiety to the farmers as excessive droughts.”

Heavy flooding necessitated the use of floating rice varieties, that is, those that elongate rapidly as the water level rises. An early mention of floating rice appears in De la Loubère (1986 [1693]):

[T]he Siamese do not reshape their land. They till it and sow it when the rains have sufficiently softened it, and they gather their harvest once the water has retreated, and sometimes while it remains and they can go only by boat. All the land that is overflowed is good for rice and it is said that the ear always rises above the water; and if the water rises a foot in twenty hours, the rice grows a foot in twenty-four hours.

Details of the flood regime in the Chao Phraya Delta prior to the construction of the Bhumibol (1964) and Sirikit (1974) Dams are not known. However, the entire delta was cultivated with TVs—a term that refers to photosensitive varieties with long stems (0.5 to 1 m for “deepwater rice” and up to 4 m for “floating rice”) and cycle durations (between five and nine months) (Tanabe 1980; Takaya 1986). A map from 1950 (Fig. 1) shows that flooding occurred annually in most of the delta, with the exception of the levees around the river and main canals, the coastal zone, and a few higher-elevation areas.



Fig. 1 Flood Zoning in the Late 1940s

Source: Thailand, Ministry of Agriculture (1950).


II-2 The Greater Chao Phraya Irrigation Scheme of the 1960s and 1970s

The water regime in the Chao Phraya Delta has been in a state of constant change over the last 60 years, in line with gradual land development and the “artificialization” of the natural landscape and hydrological regime. The introduction of the Greater Chao Phraya irrigation scheme in the 1960s and 1970s saw irrigation canals built on the natural levees bordering the waterways and water controls increased on the higher land served by these canals (Small 1972), enabling double cropping.

However, low-lying areas in the upper delta remained vulnerable to flooding caused by a combination of excess flow from the river system, streams originating on the sides of the delta, return flows from higher irrigated land, and local rainfall. To better regulate the flood pattern in terms of height and duration, dikes were built around the (lower) part of these “drainage boxes” (Molle et al. 1999) with regulated outlets to the rivers. (Fig. 2 shows the general structure of a drainage box.) In the 1970s, most of the floodways through which the Chao Phraya River could spread into low-lying areas were gated and closed. Following the floods of 1975, for example, the embankments were raised 50 cm above the flood level. By the late 1980s, around 500,000 ha of traditional rice varieties were still cultivated in the Chao Phraya Delta (Puckridge et al. 2000).



Fig. 2 Schematic Diagram of a Drainage Box

Source: Molle et al. (1999).


Thus, a system of 20 main drainage boxes was gradually constructed and improved in the upper delta. (Fig. 3 shows the name and main outlet of each of these boxes.) It allows water to accumulate within the boxes to a suitable height and retains it at that level until the rice ripens, at which point it is drained for harvesting. This takes place in December or January, depending on the box, once the water level in the river system outside the boxes has subsided, allowing water to be drained by gravity. The drainage rate depends on the box (topography, design of outlet sluices, rice variety, etc.). If there is a single variety, quick drainage is required for harvesting. Where there are several, those growing lower down usually need water for a few days longer and the drainage rate is slower. The rate also depends on downstream conditions in the river. These are affected by the inflow into the delta and the drainage of other boxes. Fig. 4 shows the drainage curves of the three regulators located on Khlong Bang Phra Khru draining the Bang Kum box following the opening of the gates around December 12. We see that the upstream regulators raise the water level, delaying the drainage of those farther downstream.2)



Fig. 3 Main Drainage Boxes in the Chao Phraya Delta

Source: adapted from Molle et al. (1999).



Fig. 4 Drainage of the Bang Kum Box 1994–95 (Three Outlets)


While boxes allow a degree of control, risk is not fully eliminated. High inflow can exceed the drainage capacity of the boxes, leading water to rise above normal levels and submerging some deepwater rice varieties. If the inflow is too weak, it can cause the water level to rise too slowly or not high enough. A delay in draining the box can force farmers to harvest their rice by boat. Higher land tends not to flood and can be irrigated by canals and cultivated with HYVs. Depending on the year, location, and water availability it can even be double-cropped.

III The Wholesale Shift from Traditional Rice Varieties to HYVs

III-1 The First Wave of Change

The construction of the Bhumibol and Sirikit Dams, as well as the development of smaller dams and diversion works in the upper and middle sections of the Chao Phraya basin, decreased the intensity of flooding (see Molle et al. 2001a; Tebakari et al. 2003). This first manifested itself in the lower delta, where flooding was on average far less severe. Farmers in the upper half of the West Bank (Chao Chet Bang Yihon and Phraya Banlue Projects) found that they could afford to partly protect their fields from flooding by building dikes. Raised road embankments also helped to polder fields from the many waterways that crisscross the West Bank (Takaya 1986; JICA 1992). Where the risk was too high, calendars would be shifted in order to cultivate before and after the flood period. In the West Bank, but also in the East Bank, these changes led to the disappearance of TVs (Tanabe 1980). The availability of water during the dry season (from the Chao Phraya Dam and pumping from adjacent rivers) enabled farmers not only to shift to more productive HYVs but also to double-crop their fields, with substantial economic gains.

In the late 1980s improved water control in the Mae Klong basin3) also reduced flooding along the Song Phi Nong River, which marks the divide between the Mae Klong alluvial fan and the paddy fields of Suphan Buri to the west of the Chao Phraya Delta. While Song Phi Nong used to be famous for its semi-aquatic lifestyle, with locals living on the first floor of their houses and using boats during the flood period (see Sumet 1988), farmers found that the reduction in flooding meant they could grow one HYV before the flood and another after, as in the West Bank.

From the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s, several drainage boxes of the upper delta underwent similar changes in their regulation (Molle and Jesda 1998). First, the level was reduced in the flood period as the intensity of flooding appeared to lessen, due to an overall decline in inflow and the development of intermediate cross-regulators on the boxes’ main drains that allowed greater, stepwise control of the water. The development of on-farm infrastructure on the high lands gave better access to irrigation water from canals, and the spread of individual axial pumps allowed farmers to tap low water from canals, drains, and rivers, facilitating the cultivation of HYVs, which in turn required a lower water level in the box (Molle et al. 2001a).

Second, the target water level at the end of the draining of the box and the beginning of the dry season was increased. As fishing was an important complement to local livelihoods, in the past the boxes were fully drained in order to catch fish more easily in the depressions. However, the target regulation level was raised as dikes were built along both sides of the box main drains, where the remaining water could be stored for use in gardening in the villages or the cultivation of nearby fields, and also perhaps as a result of reduced interest in fishing. Changes in regulation were quite substantial in boxes such as Lam Chuad (from 4 m to 5.5 m), Watmanee (2.3 m to 4.5 m), and Sala Deng (2.5 m to 3 m) (Molle et al. 1999).

But shifting from TVs to the double cropping of HYVs on higher land that is no longer flooded comes with two preconditions: first, the terrain must be leveled and supplied by a water distribution network, where previously floodwater was simply spread across uneven land. This on-farm investment—shouldered by farmers—was facilitated by the ever-cheaper cost of earth-moving machinery and service. Second, irrigation water must be provided by the RID, especially for the second (post-flood) crop that will grow in the dry season, with hardly any rainfall, although in some boxes farmers resort primarily to local resources, including rivers. Water supply depends on the capacity/willingness of the RID to provide water, but farmers have understood that starting cultivation as soon as possible after the flood (sometimes even draining their individual plot by pumping in order to start land preparation early) has two advantages. First, they benefit from the residual soil wetness and water stored in the canals; and second, it compels the RID to supply them with water in the latter stages of cultivation, as the sight of drying paddy fields in media releases is considered unpalatable.

III-2 The Conversion of Drainage Boxes

Despite the transformations discussed above and the overall decrease in the regulated water level in the boxes, by the turn of the century TVs in the delta still occupied around 300,000 ha (Molle et al. 1999). It was, then, hardly envisioned that this remaining flooded land could be converted to HYV double cropping. On the one hand, excess water (from local rainfall, lateral drains entering the delta, return flows from irrigated areas) had to go somewhere, and when the rivers rose to high levels they could not be drained out of the boxes (in the absence of pump stations). On the other hand, the RID was loath to see the demand for dry-season water increase when the supply could irrigate, on average, only around half the delta (Molle et al. 2001a). Yet, despite these limitations, most boxes saw their rice patterns transformed around 2010.4) Below, this is illustrated by the case of the Bang Kum drainage box (BKB).

The BKB covers around 83,000 rai, of which 38,000 belong to the Roeng Rang Project and 45,000 to the Kok Katiem Project. Administratively the BKB comprises 22 tambon (subdistricts) belonging to three provinces (Lop Buri, Ayutthaya, and Saraburi) (RID 2018) (see Fig. 5). Ninety percent of the land is used for rice and the rest for taro, other crops, fishponds, small-scale factories, government buildings, temples, and residential areas (RID 2010). The land elevation in the BKB averages 2.9 m (above mean sea level), varying between +2.7 m and +3.2 m (RID 2010).



Fig. 5 Bang Kum Drainage Box (BKB), with Regulated Outlets (Round Circles Points)

Source: RID (2018).


At least in the BKB’s lower parts, farmers have been limited by the floodwater regime. Although this regime was regulated, as described above, and therefore afforded a degree of predictability and stabilization of production, yields remained low, at an average of 35 thang (0.35 tons) per rai. The main varieties included the Khao Tah Heng and Pin Kaew 56 (floating rice) varieties (Molle et al. 1999). Farming system analysis in the village of Ban Nong Mon (Molle et al. 2001b) in the heart of the box in 2000 revealed in particular low rice productivity and limited diversification, as well as many absent villagers renting their land to relatives or other villagers, fewer children (due to a lack of economic prospects), a high rate of emigration, and significant off-farm income. A comparison with two other villages, one in Lop Buri Province and the other in Suphan Buri Province, with cropping intensities of 1.45 and 2.9 respectively, showed that the average net income of 822 baht/rai observed in Bang Kum was much lower than the values observed in the other two villages, 2,560 baht/rai and 7,195 baht/rai respectively. Although this stark per rai productivity gap was partly bridged at the household level because Bang Kum had smaller families, larger farms, and a higher reliance on non-cropping activities, off-farm work, and remittances, the per capita income in Suphan Buri remained twice as high as in Bang Kum (yet remarkably far from the initial ratio in land productivity, which was close to 8). This confirmed that environmental constraints to intensification resulted in lower household incomes.

In the late 1990s the RID and provincial services attempted to develop secondary local water resources so farmers could grow a second crop of rice in the dry season, just after harvesting. They excavated ponds surrounded by huge dikes in the lower part of the boxes, but this did not lead to double cropping as the second crop faced three obstacles (Wuttitchai 2000): the limited time window (January to April), which could be reduced by a late flood recession; the need to pump water over high dikes (incurring costs); and the need for collective action (farmers starting alone would see their crops devastated by rats, which had little to feed on in the dry season).

As in the cases of the Upper West Bank and Phak Hai Project, the overall average decline in floodwater inflow during the rainy season became increasingly evident in the BKB, where the target water level was reduced from 4.8 m to 4.5 m in the early 1990s, allowing higher plots to avoid flooding and grow HYVs with water from irrigation canals. In 1995 two farmers from Ban Nong Mon in the BKB attempted dry-season cropping of HYVs but had their fields overrun by rats, followed by flooding. A farmer leader’s attempt at dry-season cropping met with success in 1997—but his fields were located on the higher fringe of the BKB, so he could get irrigation water from the canal.

Collective action was initiated in the 2000s toward a radical, box-wide change in water regulation and rice-cropping patterns. In 2002 a group of farmers in the lower BKB invested 2.8 million baht of their own savings to dig nine ditches with parallel dirt roads, and collectively organized the water management (RID 2010). Their initiative was rewarded with 22.5 million baht from a bumper rice crop that year. The success led them to form a Water User Group consisting of 84 members with 4,700 rai. They invited government agencies from various sectors to discuss abandoning flood-season rice cropping of TVs in favor of the double cropping of HYVs—one crop before the flood and a second after it.5) The RID backed the initiative. Pressure for change mounted when rice cropping became extremely attractive, as the government took to subsidizing production. In 2008–13 the average farm gate price reached 9.6 baht/kilo against a commonplace value of 6–7 baht (OAE, various years).6) If we take the total cost of production of one rai of HYV at 3,600 baht (Stuart et al. 2018) and a yield of 0.85 tons, this hike actually represents an increase in net income by a factor of 2.4.

Neighboring farmers in one area would come together to build a channel to their plots. However, on land that sloped gently toward the central drain, higher plots were hard to reach. Farmers would either have to build two or more consecutive reaches, pumping water from the lower to the higher in stages, or raise the water level from below by operating the gate accordingly. But the latter would cause low-lying plots near the drain to flood, and indeed conflict arose between the owners of low- and high-lying plots (RID 2018, 36–37). Low-lying plots were surrounded with higher bunds to allow a target water level in the box of +3 m so water could penetrate inland through networks of ditches dug by farmers. In order to reach higher land, the target level was gradually increased to +3.2 m once lowland farmers had improved their plot bunds and roads and dikes had been raised and strengthened.

The draining of the box was also contentious, as growers of TVs harvested their crops in late December/January, thereby sometimes delaying the sowing period for the farmers of HYV rice to late January or mid-February. The RID attempted to resolve disputes by holding meetings for farmers to convince the TV growers of the benefits of shifting to two HYV crops and “do[ing] away with old farming habits” (RID 2010, 3–10). It was finally agreed, and in 2010 the RID altered the water regime, replicating what had just occurred in the Watmanee box in the same Kok Katiem Project.

The shift to double cropping entailed a redefinition of the flood-management regime as it had been practiced over previous decades. During the flood period the BKB would now be drained as allowed by the water level in the downstream Khlong Bang Phra Khru (Fig. 5). When the level rose in that canal (which connects the Lop Buri and Pasak Rivers and therefore reflects their respective water levels and flow conditions), the gates would be closed and water would accumulate in the box. There would be no specific attempt to store water, but—as during Phase II—if need be, water could be stored up to 4.5–4.8 m without disrupting local life. As soon as river levels downstream allowed, the gates would be reopened and water drained out of the box. Some years this could be done as early as November, allowing the post-flood crop to be established early, thus maximizing the chances of a second crop the following spring.

However attractive on paper, the new dynamic was not without its limitations, as mentioned earlier with regard to higher-elevation land. TVs were cultivated on rough and uneven ground that was ploughed and sown only after the first rains, usually in April or May. Neither the early rain-fed growth nor the later flooded stages required particular land leveling. But the cultivation of HYVs required investment in farm infrastructure, such as that undertaken by the 84 farmers of the BKB in 2002. This included access roads, plot leveling, and bunds and a network of channels to convey water to inland plots from the low-lying drains and depressions where it was stored.

Despite these investments, eased by the availability of machinery or the possibility of using their four-wheel tractors to grade the land, farmers quickly harvested the benefits of the transformation. From a low benefit estimated at around 1,400 baht/rai for traditional varieties, the double cropping of HYVs yielded7) the handsome sum of 9,100 baht/rai to those who managed to double-crop (for a price of 9.6 baht/ton).

III-3 The “Monkey Cheek” Project and the Requalification of Flood Management

On September 20, 2016 Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Chatchai Sarikulya endorsed—as earlier governments had—the “monkey cheek” (kaem ling) policy, by embracing the use of low-lying land as a buffer at times of flooding (Thanaporn 2018). The move was likely prompted by a very late rice harvest in 2016, which prevented the boxes from being used and shifted the excess flow to the main stem of the Chao Phraya River, damaging houses in Ayutthaya (Bangkok Post, October 11, 2016; RID 2016). Gen. Chatchai Sarikulya issued a ruling that established a cropping calendar intended to accelerate crop establishment and harvesting in 13 areas, termed “monkey cheeks,” in the Chao Phraya basin, including the BKB.8) The new cropping pattern was trialed in 2017, and on May 1 the RID began distributing water for rice cultivation in the 12 monkey cheeks located in the delta (1.15 million rai). The plots were harvested in August and early September before the land was purposely flooded (officially on September 15) so as to store water in line with the new policy. Once filled, the drainage boxes were drained at the beginning of December (officially on December 1).

The shift from the management regime of the early 2010s brought several changes. While still aimed at enabling two crops of rice, it required more formal planning of the cropping calendars within the box so that cultivation (before September 15) and flood mitigation (after September 15) did not conflict. It also required the box to be filled to its full capacity and enforced a no-cultivation period of 2.5 months to allow for fishing. In exchange, the RID committed to sending water in both early May (so harvesting could take place before the flood) and the dry season (from the beginning of November once the flood had receded), while farmers would be compensated if their crops were damaged by an early flood in August.

IV Management and Technical Complexities of Rice-Water Relationship

The changes described in the preceding section allow us to identify four main phases in the development and management of the floodplain. These are summarized in Table 1. Each of these phases corresponds to a major shift in the water management regime. The water regime established around 2010 (Phase III), briefly described above, allowed a spectacular shift from one TV to one or, increasingly often,9) two HYVs. However, the new regime was complicated by a dependence on hydrological conditions both locally and in the upstream areas where the flows that traverse the delta originate. Enhancing local benefits made it necessary to reshuffle the water regime, but this created disbenefits in other parts of the delta. We first examine how such negative externalities were created and later turn to briefly analyzing the most recent promotion of the kaem ling policy (Phase IV) (subsection IV-3).


Table 1 Main Phases in Floodplain Management



IV-1 Juggling Water and Time

Under optimal conditions, that is, in a year not hampered by excessive flooding in the wet season or water shortage in the dry season, this new regime (Phase III) in the BKB could be described as follows: during the potential flood period, typically mid-September to mid-November, water would either be drained or stored when downstream river conditions did not allow drainage. There was no need to store a specific amount of water above that required for the next cultivation season thanks to that stored in the drain, at a set level of around 3.2 m above mean sea level. The duration of the flood period in the BKB depended on a combination of local rainfall, sideflows, and possible excess water in the delta (relieved by diverting water to drainage boxes10)), as well as whether the water levels farther down the river needed the BKB outlets to be fully closed.

As the water receded, sometime in mid-November to December,11) the box would be partially emptied. Farmers would then begin preparing the land without delay on soil still saturated with water, which facilitated ploughing and puddling, and saving the water needed to soak the soil before these operations.12)

However, with rice gradually established across the BKB and irrigated with water stored between the dikes of the main drains, the available levels quickly declined. The extent to which crops can be established (particularly on higher ground, far from the central drain), and the time taken for this, thus depend on additional supply, which can come from several sources (Fig. 6):



Fig. 6 Inflows to the BKB

Source: Molle et al. (1999).


1. Released from Chai Nat-Pasak feeder canal by the RID through secondary canals or drains to supply the BKB

2. Pumped from the Lop Buri River and Khlong Bang Phra Khru to meet irrigation needs, including permanent pumps set up by subdistricts or farmers themselves, and mobile RID pumps in case of crisis

3. Local storage either in excavated natural ponds (bung) or dug reservoirs, both of which can be fairly large in certain boxes, such as Lam Chuad and Wat Ulom. In the BKB the army has recently excavated a buffer reservoir with local funding.

4. Return flow from the higher areas in the Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects that receive canal water and irrigate by gravity (from both canal tail-ends and the drainage system), but these areas generally receive water later (and may be allocated very limited water, depending on the year).

A major consequence of the new regime that must be emphasized is that by allowing farmers in the box to forego their TV and cultivate after the flood recedes, the RID has implicitly put itself in the position of having to ensure supply to the area once local resources are exhausted. Since the overall availability of water—at the basin or delta level—is very limited in the dry season, and although the BKB partly grows its post-flood crop based on local water resources, this creates added competition between upstream highland farmers (who receive water by gravity through the canal system) and lowland farmers in the box.

Indeed, the optimistic planting of rice after the flood can be confronted by a lack of water toward the middle or end of the cycle. This leads to desperate measures on the part of farmers, as in the BKB in 2015, when 40 pumps were pooled to extract water from the bottom of the BKB main drain13) (see Fig. 7), compelling the RID to find ways to support paddy fields in want of water so as to avoid damaging media coverage of withering crops. (This included pumping water from the Lop Buri River and Khlong Bang Phra Khru [see Fig. 5] with mobile pumps and allowing extra releases from the Chao Phraya Dam.) But losses in yield are not always preventable: in March 2016, 400,000 rai were damaged in the delta.14)



Fig. 7 Farmers Collectively Pumping the Remaining Water in the BKB Main Drain (2015) (Khun Somboon, Ban Nong Mon)


Therefore, in 2019 and again in 2020, low or uncertain stocks led the RID to announce at the beginning of the year that farmers should not cultivate dry-season crops, as the water supply could not be assured. The move was intended to renounce responsibility and prevent any criticism of the RID should crops fail. Yet, despite the warnings there were reduced yields and even crop loss, demonstrating that in practice it is not possible to prevent farmers from embarking on cultivation if they have access to water.

Around three to four months after sowing, depending on the rice variety used and access to water,15) fields in the box are drained in order to allow mechanical harvesters to operate. Farmers in the higher parts of the box, who have to pump water from below to irrigate (unless it reaches them from above, through the canal system), now benefit from their plot’s position and drain by gravity. Conversely, farmers on lower land—below the regulation level of 3.2 m—who can get water from the main drain into their plot by gravity sometimes need to pump water out. All such operations are carried out using mobile axial pumps generally powered by two-wheel tractors. It is possible for managers to lower the regulation level (say from 3.2 m to 1.5 m in a week) so all the fields can be drained by gravity, including the lowest. Once this is done, in a matter of days the gates are closed again to allow the water level to recover so that farmers can begin their second crop.

In May, therefore, farmers are eager to embark on a second HYV crop. However, this also may face water shortages, since there is little flow from upstream plots and the rainy season water delivery is only slowly beginning in the basin; the latter can be delayed if rainfall is late and upstream storage dams are depleted. In addition, Roeng Rang Project is fourth in line on the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal, and it takes time before it can receive and divert its full share. Water supply can be enhanced by two natural sources, but these are unpredictable:

5. Local rainfall, which can vary widely at the beginning of the rainy season

6. Rainfall in the rain-fed areas of Saraburi and Lop Buri Provinces, which generates sideflows that traverse the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal through siphons and then the Kok Katiem and Roeng Rang Projects to feed their drainage system and the BKB

As the rainy season unfolds, more water is diverted to both the highlands and the box, the latter also benefiting from the return flow of the former (sources 1 and 4 above). Irregularity in the total supply combined with the nature of the plot (topography, elevation, distance from water sources, etc.) governs two things: whether a particular farmer in the box decides to grow a second crop or not, and when he will be able to do so. Lowland farmers facing limited water supply in April–May may wait for supply to increase later in the rainy season, but the issue then is timing: those sowing their crop, say, at the beginning of June would have to harvest it after mid-September and face the risk of flooding, meaning that some forego cultivation. This creates the counterintuitive scenario of some farmers in the BKB no longer growing rice in the rainy season (Fig. 8).



Fig. 8 Cropping Calendars in the BKB and the Issues Faced (Phase IIII)


Storage is almost always low by the end of the dry season. Indeed, in April 2019 the deputy PM revealed that 23 large reservoirs were below 50 percent of their total water capacity due to releases made to “meet the high water demands in the [Chao Phraya] basin during the rest of the dry season” (Pratch 2019). And the situation can be dramatic if dam storage is extremely low. It can severely delay the establishment of the main crop, meaning the crop cannot be fully harvested if floods arrive in October (or earlier). This was precisely the case in 2016, which followed a year of very limited inflow in 2015 compounded by excessive releases in the dry season and minimal rainfall and runoff at the beginning of the rainy season. By the end of September 750,000 rai had not yet been harvested,16) and the RID delayed the sending of excess water to drainage boxes, creating tension with the governor of Ayutthaya, who demanded that pressure be relieved for those living outside the dikes.17)

Served by gravity irrigation canals, higher land faces a different set of constraints and a different calendar. Here farmers usually start rainy-season cultivation in June or even later, harvest after the main rainy period, and await supply from the RID in January or later to grow a second crop.18) This crop is therefore conditional upon water availability in the delta and Chao Phraya basin.19) Return flow benefiting BKB farmers also depends on the extent and timing of double cropping upstream. Such contingencies can be alleviated by growing shorter-term rice varieties (between 85 and 105 days) or exploiting local reserves (private or public ponds and reservoirs). But a 2,000-rai area located at the end of Kok Katiem’s Canal 21, which follows the left bank of the Lop Buri River and ends up in the BKB, illustrates the issues. The downstream fields receive water very late in the dry season (as upstream farms abstract water from the canal first and also because priority is given to BKB lowlanders), and therefore they are commonly not harvested until the end of June. Since the risk of flooding is high, farmers here prefer to use traditional varieties (deepwater rice) for the ensuing wet season. Hence, the shift from TV to HYV in the lowlands, and the priority lowlands were given, limited the supply and delayed delivery to an area that had to go back to TV in the rainy season!

This detailed description of the constraints on growing two crops in the BKB (summarized in Fig. 8) serves to show that intensification (a shift from TV to HYV and from one to two crops) comes with a higher risk in a context where the control of water flows remains partial.

IV-2 Impact of Phase III on Land and Water Resource Use

The shift in rice cultivation observed in the BKB brought a radical leap in land productivity. The average output per hectare grew from 1–2 tons in the 1990s to up to 10 tons where two crops could be grown. However, this came at the cost of more chemicals sprayed on fields that had once received only natural silt. On the other hand, the creation of an almost permanent wetland in the box bottom boosted fish stocks and attracted a spectacularly high number of birds that preyed on fish.

In the Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects the shift has substantially increased the efficiency of water use since return flows from higher land are collected by the drainage system and reused in the BKB. Gates remain closed most of the year, and this is particularly clear in the dry season, when no water is lost (with even some inflow gathered at high tide). In the rainy season water efficiency is less of an issue since natural runoff generally exceeds agricultural demand. Reservoirs excavated in the box capture some wet-season water to be used during the dry season and therefore also raise water use efficiency.

Effective communication increases efficiency too. The RID organizes one or two meetings a year (attended by 200–300 farmers from eight amphoe/districts) in Don Phut, in the middle of the BKB, to agree on cropping calendars and regulatory targets. RID staff also visit local authorities to coordinate the communication of the new water management approach to communities. This includes the use of the mobile phone application Line, via which farmers are informed of the daily water level at key locations.20)

Since the RID gave all farmers in the Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects the opportunity to double-crop, they have been able to increase their income (see subsection III-2). However, at a wider level, that of the basin, this agricultural intensification is highly problematic. By allowing the shift in farming practices across the whole delta’s floodplain, the RID substantially increased the overall water demand in the dry season. With more diversions to irrigation projects and no return flow to the river system, less water is available to sustain the river flow and, eventually, the Chao Phraya River at its estuary.21) The growing abstraction of water from Khlong Bang Phra Khru and the Lop Buri River (and elsewhere from the Noi and Tha Chin Rivers) has also reduced river flows. All this worsens the chronic problem of saline water intrusion that periodically affects the lower delta in dry years (and threatens, for example, durian and other fruit orchards in Nonthaburi and even the main intake of Bangkok’s domestic water supply).22)

The shift also has mixed implications for flood management. On the one hand the filling of the box, which is left to depend on hydrological conditions, represents an optimal kaem ling flood management strategy, with boxes filled as late as possible to absorb any forthcoming excess. On the other hand, though, the BKB can now be under cultivation at a time (say, late September) when (in Phase II management) the box would already be absorbing early excess water that would gradually flood and sustain traditional varieties. The late presence of crops in the BKB is due to the increased staggering of rice cropping, as farmers try to adapt two crops to an uncertain water supply environment (the six sources identified above) while sharing water at the local level (Fig. 8). In other words, farmers cannot establish their crop at the same time because of the time needed to distribute water spatially.

The limited ability to absorb early water excesses has both local and broader consequences. Since no excess water can be sent to the BKB (or other boxes) before crops are harvested, the RID is obliged to block incoming sideflows by closing the siphons that traverse the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal. This causes flooding along the eastern embankment, which must then be dealt with through pumping ponding water into the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal itself. Across the delta the late cultivation of the boxes prevents the RID from making use of them and concentrates excess flow in rivers, which is problematic for people residing outside of the dikes, as illustrated in Ayutthaya in 2016 (described above). In summary, when scaled up to the level of the delta the local reshuffling of the water regime in the different boxes generates externalities at other scales.

IV-3 Impact of the Kaem Ling Policy in Ayutthaya (Phase IV)

The early flooding in Ayutthaya led the government to float a policy in late 2016 seeking to establish a fixed calendar to prevent late harvesting in drainage boxes. However, the complexity of the situation described above, with multiple cropping calendars varying in space and time according (mainly) to access to a diversity of (also varying) water resources, cannot be simplified and made uniform without a loss of flexibility and negative consequences.

The regulation shift achieved in the late 2000s (Phase II) saw improvements in flood management. Indeed, keeping the drainage boxes as empty as possible by releasing water at every opportunity maximizes their buffering capacity. This added capacity varies greatly since it depends on whether the boxes are filled naturally or from diverting irrigation canals—a complex and fluctuating process. The new policy (Phase IV) came with four potential negative impacts.

The first was that buffering capacity in the boxes was reduced with the introduction of the “Release water in plots, release fishes in lowlands” project23) by the governor of Ayutthaya in association with the Department of Fisheries, the RID, and the MOAC. The new policy would enforce a fixed calendar, whereby farmers would have to harvest before September 15 (or a similar date) so that boxes could be filled, but then the RID would start filling them even when it was not necessary. This would reduce the buffering capacity that could be needed later in October, depending on future hydrological events and patterns.

Second, the policy of filling the boxes to capacity actually reverts to the water management mode of the 1990s (Phase II), except that no rice is now cultivated in the boxes during the flood period. The process brings in fertilizing silt, kills weeds, and allows fish to grow—and villagers to catch them—benefits emphasized by the local authorities of Ayutthaya. Records show that in four of the past five years the water level inside the BKB peaked above 4 m, despite the policy of minimizing the levels in the boxes. This means that the control of weeds and the inflow of silt are partially achieved by the Phase III management. Filling the boxes to capacity, whether necessary or not, also reduces the average buffer capacity. This is ironic since the policy is promoted under the kaem ling banner as a flood-mitigation strategy.

Third, the policy is to keep water in the boxes for 2.5 months. While this extension enhances fish production, it may delay the emptying of the boxes and therefore the establishment of the post-flood crop or prevent the cultivation of a second HYV crop in the box altogether.

Fourth, as well as flood management the policy promotes double cropping, thereby increasing the demand for water in the dry season. Phase III made double cropping possible, but it was mostly left to farmers to find the water to grow the post-flood crop (although the RID was at times forced to supply some to avert crop loss). In a bid to gain farmers’ acceptance, however, the new policy includes priority water supply to the farmers in the kaem ling boxes in both the dry and early wet seasons, ensuring that they can harvest on time (mid-September). This increases water demand as well as encourages farmer complaints when the promised water is not delivered.

Another incentive included in the policy is the government’s commitment to compensating farmers if early flooding damages their crop, on the condition that they register their land. The outcome of this, according to one local official, is that farmers have been tempted to register far larger cropping areas than they actually have.

It remains unclear whether this policy has in fact been implemented in the BKB as it has in the boxes near Ayutthaya (Bang Bal and Phak Hai Projects) and Bang Rakam in Phitsanulok, which are monitored more closely and may have a more direct impact on reducing water levels in the Chao Phraya River. Local residents appear unconcerned, explaining in particular that Ayutthaya’s governor cannot impose the policy here because half of the BKB lies in Lop Buri Province.

V Discussion and Conclusion

The history of rice intensification over the past three decades in the floodplain of the Chao Phraya Delta in general, and the Bang Kum box in particular, shows how a trend that began in the late 1980s and 1990s in the less flooded areas of the lower delta took hold across the delta. The shift from one TV to the single/double cropping of HYVs was made technically possible by several factors, ranging from ever-increasing storage and diversion capacity in the upper Chao Phraya basin (reducing the average flood pattern24)), increased availability of secondary sources (drains and ponds in low-lying areas, excavated reservoirs, pumping from rivers, etc.), and elevated roads to technological advances (mechanized farm processes, the availability of short-cycle rice varieties, etc.) (see Molle et al. 1999; 2001a).

But the shift also indirectly resulted from the government’s policy to support rice prices (Ricks 2018). The delta’s floodplain had long been known for its aging farmers, smaller families, and high rates of tenancy (near Ayutthaya) (see Molle and Thippawal 1999), and a comparison of farming systems in three areas with contrasting cropping intensities in 2000 showed that low rice incomes forced villagers to migrate and/or work off-farm (Molle et al. 2001b). It is, therefore, understandable that windfall profits from rice due to a rise in prices encouraged farmers to act collectively and to coordinate with the RID to implement a full-fledged change in water management. Farmers who could, after investments in on-farm infrastructure, achieve a double cropping of HYVs could multiply their rice income more than sixfold. Although no in-depth research was conducted in the BKB after the changes, the authors’ two visits to Ban Nong Mon in 2018 provided some striking visual hints of the new wealth of the village since the survey conducted 20 years earlier. Water use efficiency has also substantially increased in the projects thanks to local storage and the recycling of return flows.

It is not fully clear why the RID abandoned its policy to discourage the expansion of dry-season water demand. One reason might be that the 1987–2000 period, when Phase II management prevailed, was shown in retrospect to be a period with low dry-season water availability. In contrast, the 2000–11 period can be considered “wet”: the amount of water released by the Bhumibol and Sirikit Dams between November and April (the dry season) in the 2007–11 period, during which prices were raised, was 8.5 billion m3, against 6.6 billion m3 for a median year before 2000 (Molle et al. 2001a). During the same period, the average area irrigated in the dry season in the delta was 5.8 million rai, versus 3.1 million rai during the 1900s (OAE, various years). Another reason is that changes in management were negotiated largely at the project level, without considering wider implications at the delta or basin level. If such considerations were mentioned, they were probably pushed aside in the face of social and political pressure in favor of expanding rice cultivation.

The most fascinating finding of this research is perhaps the interconnectedness of diverse areas through the water regime, and the cross-scale impacts of changing water distribution and cropping patterns. Water availability depends on a number of factors, some natural (rainfall—both local and in the upper basin—sideflows, dam inflow) and some manageable (dam releases, scheduling, allocation, etc.). The combination of these depends on and also shapes complex and fluctuating hydrological patterns. Farmers set their crop calendars by weighing risk and uncertainty and taking into account local conditions (topography, equipment, mix of accessible or potential water sources, price of rice, etc.). But particular choices at the local level, when combined, have implications for water allocation and flood management at the delta/basin level. Notwithstanding the local benefits of the broad shift to double cropping, the floodplain of the delta has experienced some macro-level negative impacts.

The first is increased water demand in the dry season that results in competition over the resource and reduced return flow to the river system. As we have seen, this competition occurs between uplanders and lowlanders but also at a wider scale, since water allocation in the dry season resembles a zero-sum game (Molle et al. 2001a). The spread of dry-season cropping over the 300,000 ha of floodplain therefore means that the water used to fuel this expansion has to come from somewhere else: there will be more saline intrusion into the Chao Phraya and Tha Chin Rivers, areas elsewhere in the basin will be deprived of water, groundwater elsewhere will be increasingly depleted, or more water will be released from the dams. This last outcome may reflect increased water storage, like in the 2000s, but it can also reflect carelessness: more water is released during the dry season, at the cost of increased risk in case dams do not fill up again quickly at the beginning of the ensuing rainy season. This is what was observed in 2019 and 2020, for example.

The second cross-scale disturbance brought about by the shift to HYVs was the constraint not to flood the drainage boxes before they were harvested. This loss of flexibility in flood management resulted in unusual early flooding near Ayutthaya and flooding along the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal, as sideflows could not be allowed into the delta.

The policy implemented in 2017 was justified by its aim of avoiding such problems and restoring a degree of predictability to cropping calendars. Yet it seems to have been devised without a full understanding of water management in the delta’s floodplain. The introduction of fixed calendars would reduce management capacity, add rigidity where flexibility was required, and shift the risk from farmers (who adjust to the water regime) to the RID (which committed to supply them). Ironically, the policy was devised under the banner of the monkey cheek policy while actually undermining an existing system that was close to an optimal monkey cheek strategy. This complexity is not easily comprehended, which is why a form of adaptive management that favors flexibility and risk-taking at the farm level is preferable to a top-down approach that attempts to freeze crop calendars within a fluctuating and unpredictable environment. Although the strategy has been implemented in Bang Rakam, near Sukhothai, and in other drainage boxes of the delta, it seems that its practical implementation in the BKB, and possibly elsewhere, will prove unviable.

Accepted: September 4, 2020


The first author would like to warmly thank the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, for the scholarship extended to him and during which this paper has been written.


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1) The option of constructing large-scale pumping stations to remove that excess water into the river system, as practiced in the Red River Delta, for example, was considered economically unsound at this stage of the development of rice cultivation in Thailand.

2) Note the tidal effect on Khlong Bang Phra Khru, located 15 km upstream of Ayutthaya.

3) Notably with the construction of two large storage dams.

4) The generalization of the shift observed in Bang Kum to the whole floodplain was confirmed by satellite images and visits to six different boxes.

5) Those who helped mediate the process included a former director general of the Department of Agricultural Extension and a head of district with political support.

6) The reasons for this sharp increase in rice prices are beyond the scope of this paper. For further details, see Ricks (2018).

7) Not accounting for the investments made in on-farm development.

8) Twelve were situated in the middle and lower basin, the Bang Rakam low-lying land being the only one located in the upper basin (Sukhothai and Phitsanulok Provinces). Bang Rakam served as a pilot area for this policy, which is sometimes said to follow the Bang Rakam Model (Thanaporn 2018; Voogd 2019).

9) As on-farm infrastructure was improved.

10) In the BKB this could be done by allowing water from the Lop Buri River to enter at Tha Mek gate or by releases from the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal to drains and canals.

11) Or as late as January in years of exceptional flooding.

12) Considered as typically requiring 250 mm of water when the soil is dry.

13) The operation was conducted at high tide, when the water level would rise, since the tidal effect could be felt as far as the BKB.

14) ThaiVisa (2016).

15) Depending on their location, plots may have access to the drain, the irrigation canal, the rivers, and possibly a reservoir, or a combination of these sources. This dictates when a plot will start cultivation—from early if close to the main drain, to late if only canal water is accessible.

16) Bangkok Post (October 11, 2016).

17) Apinya and Sunthorn (2016).

18) Observations in the field, however, suggest a more complex—and sometimes mind-boggling—pattern, since it is not rare to observe neighboring paddy fields at all stages of cultivation. This can be explained by the heterogeneity in topography, water access (proximity to canals, drains, natural streams or ponds, local reservoirs, etc.), and farmers’ strategies.

19) Historically the cropping intensity in the delta in the dry season has been around 50 percent (see Molle et al. 2001a), but in recent years double cropping has become more frequent in the basin as a whole (higher runoff) and in Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects in particular.

20) The RID sets up chat groups, which can be joined by scanning a QR code, clicking on a link, or being added by an existing member.

21) Approximately 80 m3/second must be maintained in the estuary to avoid saline water intrusion.

22) Chularat (2016). In January 2020 saline intrusion in the Chao Phraya again threatened domestic supply, leading to plans to divert water from the Mae Klong basin.

23) In this project the Department of Fisheries releases fish into the uncultivated paddies as the RID fills the box for around three months. Farmers can thus gain complementary revenue from fishing while waiting for the next sowing period.

24) At the same time, climate change works to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme events.


Vol. 9, No. 1, Christopher JOLL and Srawut AREE


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 1

Thai Adaptations of the Javanese Panji in Cosmopolitan Ayutthaya

Christopher Joll* and Srawut Aree**

*The Centre of Excellence for Muslim Studies, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 3rd Floor, Prajadhipok-Rambhai Barni Building Phyathai Road, Bangkok 10330, Thailand; Religious Studies Program, School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand
Corresponding author’s e-mail: cmjoll[at]
**ศราวุฒิ อารีย์ The Centre of Excellence for Muslim Studies, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 3rd Floor, Prajadhipok-Rambhai Barni Building Phyathai Road, Bangkok 10330, Thailand

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.1_3

This article considers the curious case study of Thai literary networks in the late Ayutthaya, the networks’ adoption and adaptations of the Javanese Panji epic, and what these innovations reveal about the form of cosmopolitanism that existed until the late Bangkok period. While windows into what we refer to as Siamese cosmopolitanism have been reconstructed by historians in accounts of Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Chinese, and Japanese mercantile networks, our treatment of this important topic expands the units of analysis to include Thai literary networks. Davisakd Puaksom’s excellent doctoral dissertation piqued our interest in Panji’s Siamese adoptions and adaptations, but we set ourselves the task of exploring the utility of Ronit Ricci’s Islam Translated, which analyzes Tamil, Javanese, and Malay sources for Thai studies. We pursue a comparative approach to Southeast Asian historiography in ways that increase the dialogue between Thai studies specialists and members of the Malay Studies Guild. Having described the most important Thai version of this Javanese epic produced by Siamese literary networks from the Ayutthaya through to the late Bangkok period, we consider the principal historical personalities and processes that brought Panji to cosmopolitan Ayutthaya. After providing details about the presence of Javanese individuals and influences in both Ayutthaya and Patani, we introduce insights provided by literary scholars and historians concerning the notoriously ambiguous terms “Java/Jawah/Javanese” and “Malay/Melayu.” These form the foundation for putting forward arguments about Ayutthaya having fostered forms of cosmopolitanism resembling the fluid linguistic and cultural milieu that flourished in other Southeast Asian port polities.

Keywords: Panji, Inao, Siamese cosmopolitanism, Javanese, Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Melaka, Thailand


This article considers the case study of adoptions and adaptations of the Javanese Panji epic by literary networks, and what they reveal about the form of cosmopolitanism that once existed in Siam. In recent decades there have been a number of contributions examining the cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity of Ayutthaya from the early sixteenth century. We limit ourselves to the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods, which ended in 1851 with the death of Rama III (r. 1824–51). Historians have provided accounts of Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Chinese, and Japanese mercantile networks with whom various religious entrepreneurs were associated, as well as mercenaries.1) While studies based on this range of foreign sources and subjects have provided valuable windows into Siamese cosmopolitanism, there is a need to expand the units of analysis within Thai studies. Furthermore, by considering translations of this Javanese epic by Siamese literary networks, we seek to increase interest in “Javanese” and “Malay” actors and influences on cultural, linguistic, and—to a lesser extent religious—cosmopolitanism during this period.

Our awareness of, and interest in, translations of the Panji epic by Thai literary networks began when we encountered the excellent doctoral dissertation by Davisakd Puaksom (2008). The decision to specifically consider the role of literary networks in Ayutthaya was inspired by Ronit Ricci’s groundbreaking Islam Translated (2011). Ricci points out that there were various networks across the Indian Ocean, which forged connections between a wide range of individuals and communities. While Muslim trading guilds and Sufi brotherhoods played important roles in Islam’s South and Southeast Asian expansion, Ricci argues that literary networks also connected ethnically and linguistically diverse Muslims. This was through the texts they adopted and adapted, which introduced and sustained a “complex web of prior texts and new interpretations that were crucial to the establishment of both local and global Islamic identities.” Islamic literary networks produced “stories, poems, genealogies, histories, and treatises on a broad range of topics” (Ricci 2011, 2). According to Ricci, Javanese, Tamil, and Malay translations of the Arabic text Book of One Thousand Questions serve as a paradigm for “considering how translation and conversion have been historically intertwined” and how the circulation of vernacular translations of Islamic texts such as these helped “shape and maintain an Arabic cosmopolitan sphere in South and Southeast Asia.”

In addition to intentionally moving beyond European contributions to what Edward Van Roy (2017) has referred to as the “Siamese melting pot,” the utility of Ricci’s attention to literary networks to our treatment of Siamese cosmopolitanism is motivated by a desire to contribute to approaches to Thai studies associated with Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. Besides having produced a series of seminal empirical contributions, conceptually Baker and Pasuk have demonstrated that Ayutthaya was both a maritime city-state that rose from the sea—not the land—and a predominantly urban—rather than agrarian—polity involved in commerce and manufacturing (Baker 2003; Baker and Pasuk 2017c). A corollary of Ayutthaya’s port being critical to its financial prosperity and political power was that it closely resembled port cities in the Malay World. Therefore, we also wish to increase the awareness of Southeast Asian studies involved in a comparative approach to Southeast Asian historiography—specifically between Thai studies specialists and members of the Malay Studies Guild.2)

Having clarified our specific objective, and the questions we seek to answer about what translations of Panji by Thai literary networks reveal about the cosmopolitan milieu in which they operated, we introduce a mix of empirical and conceptual material. We begin by describing the most important Thai version of this Javanese epic by Siamese literary networks from the late Ayutthaya period. This is followed by a discussion of what we regard as the principal historical personalities and processes through which this epic arrived in cosmopolitan Siam, arguing that waves of “Javanese” influences came to this port polity from various directions before the dramatic increase in Malay prisoners of war following the first campaigns in south Thailand led by Rama I in 1786 (Bradley 2012). After providing details about the presence of Javanese individuals and influences in both Ayutthaya and Patani during the late Ayutthaya period, we introduce analyses by literary scholars and historians about the notorious ambiguity of the toponym “Java/Jawah” and ethnonyms “Malay/Melayu” and “Jawanese/Jawi.” These form the foundation for arguing about the ways that Ayutthaya produced forms of cosmopolitanism that resembled the fluid linguistic and cultural milieu that flourished in other Southeast Asian port polities.

Panji’s Siamese Incarnations

This section describes Inao, the best-known Thai versions of the Javanese Panji epic, produced in Siamese literary networks between the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods.3) The titles of the two most popular Thai versions are: Inao Lek (The lesser Inao), also known as Dalang; and Inao Yai (The greater Inao). They were composed in Ayutthaya by Princess Kunthon and Princess Mongkut, daughters of King Borommakot (r. 1733–58) (Davisakd 2008, 73). As described below, these Thai literary productions are best regarded as the end product of a series of oral narrations—most of which might have been through (female) storytellers—rather than written manuscripts. As independent and innovative literary creations based on a range of non-Thai sources, Inao diverges in several respects from the Javanese Panji. Nevertheless, resemblances remain. The following synopsis of the story line is provided by James Brandon:

Prince Inao has been betrothed since childhood to Princess Busba, daughter of his uncle, King of Daha.4) Inao, however, has fallen in love with another princess and refuses to carry out his obligation. . . . He goes to live with his new bride at the court of her father [King of Manya]. The King of Daha is deeply incensed. He offers Busba’s hand in marriage to the first person who requests it. Immediately Choraka [a crude and repulsive warrior] asks to marry her. It is too late for the king to withdraw his rash offer. He is about to order Busba to marry Choraka when the King of Kamankunin appears to press his suit. When told she is already promised to Choraka, the king gathers his army and attacks Daha. Inao [as his nephew] is obliged to come to Daha’s defense. He does so, but with great reluctance. He is made commander-in-chief of Daha’s armies, and leads the armies to victory. When the king invites him to visit the palace to be honored, Inao cannot refuse. During his visit he sees Busba for the first time. She is ravishingly beautiful. His passion is aroused. He curses himself for having rejected her. He finds every reason he can to remain at the palace. As the day for Busba’s marriage to Choraka approaches, lnao falls into deep melancholy. Finally he retires to the forest to compose himself and to gain peace of mind. In time, Inao emerges from the forest strengthened with magic powers. He overcomes innumerable obstacles, finally defeats all his enemies, and makes Busba his bride. (Brandon 1967, 106–107)

Some interesting details about Inao provided by Supeena Adler (2014) are that he is a “handsome young king who likes to watch theatre, who has many wives, who wins every war, and has a nonchalant lifestyle.” Topics dealt with in the text include his travels, power, protection from gods, and—most important—his desire to get what he wants. Regardless of the impact of his actions on his family, friends, and palaces, he alone is able to “conquer chaos and bring peace back to the world” (Adler 2014, 85). Given that the story’s narrative arc centers on the royalty, Adler argues that Inao communicated what people at the time wanted to “hear about the king’s life,” including the power of the king to “bring back peace.” Notably absent are anachronistic concerns about the often “unacceptable and even unethical behaviors of King Inao.” Indeed, Siamese monarchs are presented as people who can do no wrong. The story had political utility for two reasons: it concerns an administrative union under one sovereign ruler; and the central—and richly metaphorical—motif is the sexual union between the prince of Kuripan and the princess of Daha (Robson 1996, 42).

The popularity of Inao in the late Ayutthaya period is illustrated by assertions that King Suriyamarin (r. 1758–67) was so obsessed with Inao that in the final stages of the Burmese siege of Ayutthaya he was watching this drama (Adler 2014, 85). How was Inao celebrated in literary networks during the short-lived Thonburi (1782–92) and early Bangkok periods? The answer to this question can be provided by scenes from Inao being included on murals painted on the walls of royal dwellings. These included projects associated with Princess Thepsudawadi, born in the late Ayutthaya period. She was the elder sister of the first monarch of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I (r. 1782–1809), who commissioned a new version of Inao based on his memory; this was completed by a committee of court poets he personally presided over. His manuscript consisted of “9,870 stanzas in klon meter” (described below). Stuart Robson (1996, 51) notes that the manuscript included many Javanese and Melayu lexical elements.5) A second version of the story was a rather fragmented manuscript consisting of 1,772 stanzas—also in klon verse (Davisakd 2008, 44). During the reign of Rama II (r. 1809–24), the publication of another version of Inao (not Dalang) was undertaken—widely regarded as the best extant Thai version. Court artists such as Sunthorn Phu (a famous poet during the reigns of Rama I through Rama IV) and choreographer Luang Pitak Montri developed Inao into a dance drama (Adler 2014, 83). Since the mid-1700s, when it was first performed, Inao has enjoyed spectacular success. According to Davisakd, Thai poets commented that after witnessing its “mesmerizing dance,” ordinary men “want to die no more.” Its popularity is, in part, explained by its offering a story of “pleasure and desire,” which contrasted with the morality of “traditional literary works influenced by the Buddhist texts” (Davisakd 2008, 69). Adler (2014, 81) adds that, in contrast with the Thai translation of the Ramayana (Ramakien), Inao was intimately concerned with the “everyday lives of . . . Thai royalty.” While the reign of Rama IV, or King Mongkut (r. 1851–68), falls outside the purview of the early Bangkok period, scenes from Inao could be seen in murals on the walls of the ordination hall in Wat Somanat Rajawarawihara to commemorate Princess Somanat (see Fig. 1 [above] and Fig. 2 [below]). She was not only one of Rama IV’s favorite queens but also a former court dancer (Chonhacha 1995).6) The murals juxtapose Thai architectural tropes, Thai dancers, men dressed in Javanese sarongs, and Javanese shadow puppetry.



Fig. 1 Shadow Puppets in Inao Mural from Wat Somanat

Source: Davisakd (2008, 144).




Fig. 2 Cockfighting Scene from Inao Mural in Wat Somanat

Source: Davisakd (2008, 66).


Inao’s Multipolar Origins

Having provided readers with a brief introduction to Panji’s Siamese incarnation, we turn to critically evaluating proposals by historians of Southeast Asian literature about what these literary productions tell us about Siamese cosmopolitanism. It needs to be stated at the outset that our objective is not to pinpoint the origins of Inao. To paraphrase Davisakd, this would be a misguided and ultimately pointless project doomed to failure. While no one quibbles with claims that Panji originated in “Java,” Thai adaptations were based on versions “widely disseminated in oral and written forms throughout Southeast Asia” (Davisakd 2008, 103).7) We present material in (roughly) chronological order, beginning with arguments put forward by Brandon (1967) about the agency of Angkor. We make the important point that Panji is one of a number of literary works that were incorporated in the Thai literary corpus, and summarize proposals made by Malay and Javanese literary scholars. Debates concerning the origins of Panji in Ayutthaya and the cultural identity of actors involved in its transmission will be dealt with in the sections that follow. These will involve discussions of “Malay” and “Javanese” cultural influences between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in both Ayutthaya and (equally cosmopolitan) Patani (Reid 2012).8)

We begin by considering the historical personalities and processes through which this Javanese epic was adopted and adapted in Siamese literary networks. Brandon (1967) made his arguments at a time when the ideas of George Coedès (1968) were becoming more popular in anglophone scholarship. Brandon argued that the decline of the performing arts in India from around the ninth century meant that they “contributed nothing” to the development of the performing arts in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, over the centuries that followed, “dance, music, and drama” all flourished as Indian influences became “assimilated and incorporated into national, and in some cases regional, styles of performance.” These developed in different directions in line with local national culture, but there continued to be a “great deal of contact between the royal courts of this period,” and “theatre of one country [sic] often influenced that of another.” For example, in the first half of the ninth century, Jayavarman II—who was raised in the Javanese court—“founded the Khmer empire,” with the assistance of “Javanese artists . . . priests and court officials.” Despite the presence of themes borrowed from other sources, Javanese influence is clearly seen in the temples built by Jayavarman (Brandon 1967, 25–26).

From the fourteenth century, versions of the Panji epic became popular in Burmese, Cambodian, Lao, Siamese, and Malay royal courts. This epic therefore represents “one of the most famous local history legends in Southeast Asia.” In Java, Raden Panji was considered a “descendent of the Pandavas, heroes of the Mahabharata,” while on the mainland Inao became regarded as a “future Buddha” or Jataka (Brandon 1967, 106).9) Baker and Pasuk, in their A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World (2017a), develop this line of analysis by pointing out that in cosmopolitan Siam Inao was one of a number of foreign epics that became part of the literary landscape. In addition to the well-known Ramayana, these epics included “the Anirut tales from India, . . . the Arabian Thousand-and-one nights, the Duodecagon from Persia, and a vampire tale from Sanskrit (Vetala pancha-vinshati).” Furthermore, vernacular translations were recast to suit their new audience. For example, the Anirut that arrived from Cambodia in the early Ayutthaya period was adapted into an “immense epic with greater focus on the love story and the addition of Thai spirit beliefs.” And the Ramayana (Ramakien) emphasized the role of Hanuman (a clever courtier), not the royal Rama (Baker and Pasuk 2017a).

It has already been mentioned that the Panji epic had been adapted to dance and drama performances in the court of Borommakot. Inao tended to select episodes that glorified princely success or romantic escapades. Later versions of it revealed what might befall princes who behaved badly. Baker and Pasuk point out that while court and popular literary traditions might have initially been kept separate, they “increasingly borrowed from each other” at three-day festivals held at temples (wat). These are described as “open to all social levels, and which was often the staging place for dramas and recitations,” but they were also sponsored by the palace. One festival patronized by Borommakot at three new monasteries in Saraburi included performances of “khon mask-plays, lakhon dramas, shadow puppet shows, mongkhrum drum performances, rabeng dances, Mon dances, tightrope walking, jumping through flaming hoops, sword dances, wrestling, and ‘daring acrobatics’” (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 234). An important detail—mentioned by Davisakd (2008, 47) and developed in more detail by Baker and Pasuk—is that literary works were adapted to a klon. A klon is a Thai metrical form based on rhythms accompanying the popular Thai tradition of counterpoint singing. Its “simplicity and flexibility” lend themselves to composition and storytelling, especially in comparison to “older, more formalized meters which excelled at expressing emotions.” As such, “before long, klon was used for poems, dramas, (and) histories” (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 235). To summarize, Inao was one of a number of literary works adopted and adapted in Siamese literary networks. Most—although not all—were Indic works, and no consensus exists about the route through which the Javanese Panji arrived in cosmopolitan Siam. Having presented various proposals of Panji’s arrival from Angkor in the east, we now consider arguments for its arrival from the Malay World.

Robson’s analysis of Inao (1996) includes a discussion of whether the Thai versions mentioned by Prince Dhani Nivat (1947) were translated from Javanese. There are multiple Thai versions of Inao that resemble the Javanese original. There is no consensus on whether these are based on Malay or Javanese manuscripts, and it is likely that, according to Prince Damrong, both daughters of King Borommakot had “Malay maids, descendants of Pattani prisoners of war.”10) There is no information about where Prince Dhani’s versions originated, but Robson insists that they were transmitted orally. A second story claims that Inao was introduced to the Siamese court by a Muslim woman named Yai Yavo—which roughly translates as “Grandma Jawa”—and that this was translated from Javanese into Siamese by Prince Chao Kasat-tri, “for presentation on the stage.” Prince Dhani adds that the “colophon attached to King Rama II’s Inao” explicitly stated that it was composed by a Chao Satri (noblewoman) during the Ayutthaya period (cited in Rattiya 1988, 44). Can references to kham chawaa (Javanese words) in Inao be cited as evidence of the text having come directly from a Javanese source? While we address the notoriously imprecise nature of “Jawa/Jawah” and “Malay/Melayu” below, we concur with Robson’s assessment that Siamese literary networks at the time would not have been either “aware of” or “concerned with” distinctions between “Malay” and “Javanese.” Inao was “quite unambiguously” set in Java. It therefore seemed logical that “it was taken from Javanese.” Malay Panji stories also “abound with words borrowed from Javanese.” As these were produced by Thai literary networks, Robson feels justified in “regarding them as Malay,” although their “distinctive Javanese character” supplied “the appropriate ‘local color’ for a Panji story” (Robson 1996, 44–45).

Krommamun Phittayalap Phrittiyakon (following Winstedt [1958]) might have argued that the Panji epic came to Ayutthaya during the height of the Malacca sultanate in the fifteenth century, but Rattiya Saleh (1988) addresses the issue of whether that was through oral traditions or written manuscripts.11) Rattiya argues that it was Malays from Patani who functioned as the epic’s principal importers and disseminators (cited in Robson 1996, 48). As described below, if what Peter Floris (see Moreland 1934, 42–43) witnessed during his visit to Patani in 1613 was a performance of mak yong, other Javanese materials such as Panji might also have been part of the local repertoire.12) Rattiya’s most compelling contribution to issues of agency is her analysis of the Malay versions of Panji that most closely resemble the Inao texts attributed to King Rama II.13) She concludes that this is not a “translation from any particular text” but a text “adapted from one not among our selected texts, possibly from an older source which was possibly also the basis of some of our selected texts” (cited in Robson 1996, 49). On this point, Robson concurs. The lack of evidence of direct contacts between Java and Siam means that direct translations between Javanese and Thai need to be discounted.

Without taking a recalcitrant position on whether or not there was contact between Ayutthaya and Java, Davisakd disagrees. He questions why, after risking the “trip across the Java Sea to Melaka or Patani,” Javanese would not have continued on to “prosperous Ayutthaya.” He is equally reluctant to discount Siamese having visited Java: “What would have prevented Siamese from plying the naval routes between Ayutthaya and Java, whereby they could keep an eye on troublesome southern vassals? Why would they not have stayed for a season in Java?” (Davisakd 2008, 95).14) Returning to Robson, we conclude that in light of differences between (Thai) Inao and (Javanese) Panji, the former is best regarded as a “new, independent creation, albeit using a theme from a non-Thai source, but at the same time naturalized on Thai soil and hence incorporating much of Thai culture, distinct from Malay or Javanese culture.” In other words, it was the “end-product of a series of ‘receptions’ of the Panji theme” (Robson 1996, 51).

The preceding sections have provided the most important pieces of the puzzle through which a picture emerges of the personalities and historical processes of how Panji arrived in Ayutthaya, where it was adopted and adapted in its literary networks. We have identified Khmer, Javanese, and Malay personalities who arrived in Ayutthaya through conquest, and perhaps commerce. Our primary concern below is to describe the cosmopolitan sites of contact and exchange mentioned above. In order to overcome the understandable incredulity about how Javanese or Malay versions of the Panji epic could have come to the attention of Thai literary networks in Ayutthaya—especially among those oblivious to the contacts and cultural exchanges among port polities at the time—it is necessary to have a more nuanced picture of Ayutthaya’s cosmopolitan credentials as well as the “Malay” and “Javanese” elements in its linguistic and ethnic landscape.

Malay and Javanese Elements in Cosmopolitan Ayutthaya and Patani

What references to Javanese during the Ayutthaya period exist in the secondary literature? Baker begins by citing claims by Fernao Mendes Pinto (1989) that a squad of Turks attempting to scale the walls of Ayutthaya in the mid-1500s were cut to pieces by three thousand Javanese warriors (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 94). This is one of the earliest examples of Javanese loyalty to Siamese kings—also shared by the Cham. Muslims were among the foreign fighters who defended Ayutthaya in its final days. The Cham and the Javanese were often contrasted to Makassarese and Bugis visitors, who were mistrusted as potential pirates or mercenaries (Smithies 2002). Indeed, Makassarese were presented as barbaric giants (Thai yak makkasan) in Thai literature (Davisakd 2008, 92). Baker’s fascinating reconstruction of economic activity in Ayutthaya before 1767, contained in a source discovered in 1925, includes accounts of the annual monsoon season that “blew junks up the river and into the city,” which would “drop anchor at the end of the canal.” Amidst the long list of vessels are references to “Khaek from Java and Malayu” (Baker 2011, 58). When Christoph Carl Fernberger visited Ayutthaya in 1624, he counted “six Javanese sailboats” (Lukas 2016, 129).

Although the vast majority of surviving literary works from the late fifteenth century (such as the Luang Prasoet’s chronicle and law codes) were written in Thai, Pasuk and Baker (2016) point out that this was “not the only language” present during the Ayutthaya period. For instance, many religious texts were written “in Pali using a Khmer script,” translations of which were “extemporized during sermons by monks reading a Pali excerpt and then expounding in Thai.” This was facilitated by Pali-Thai notebooks compiled by monks. In Thai temples, “monks used an argot of verbs and nouns derived from Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer for everyday actions and things,” and “diplomatic correspondence between Siam and Lanka” was written in Pali (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 205).

We have already mentioned Baker’s (2003; Baker and Pasuk 2017c) important reconceptualization of Ayutthaya as an urbanized port city involved in Southeast Asia’s maritime trade. It also shared the linguistic, cultural, and religious cosmopolitanism of ports such as Melaka, Surabaya, and Batavia. An important detail that has only recently received the attention it deserves is that the most important lingua franca in Ayutthaya was Malay. Particularly after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511, Portuguese diplomacy with Ayutthaya was conducted in Malay.15) Later, in 1595, there was “a Malay letter sent from the Portuguese governor of Melaka to Naresuan” (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 205). Davisakd (2008, 84) adds that the letter from Dutch Stadholder Prince Frederick Henry to King Songtham (which arrived in 1628) was “translated from Dutch into Portuguese, from Portuguese into Malay, and from Malay into Siamese,” which at the time was “the usual procedure.” Baker and Pasuk also speculate about whether the local career of the (in)famous Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon (1647–88) got off to a good start due to his facility in English and Malay—to which he “quickly added Portuguese and Thai.” The entourage that accompanied King Borommakot on his mission to Sri Lanka to revive Buddhism in 1753 included Malay translators (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 205). We finally note that the online publication of the archive of the Dutch East India Company, or Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), includes no fewer than eight diplomatic letters exchanged between Batavia and Ayutthaya between 1674 and 1769—all of which were in Malay.16)

In addition to Malay, and other languages primarily associated with Buddhism, there were other elements in Ayutthaya’s cosmopolitan linguistic landscape. Despite difficulties in determining the exact number, Baker and Pasuk recount Dutch accounts confirming the presence of interpreters for “dealing with the court,” and that the VOC employed “informal intermediaries” skilled in “several languages.” Furthermore, a “Portuguese mestizo, a Mon, a Javanese, and a Chinese” helped mediate the crisis between the VOC and the court in 1636–37. The Portuguese was “one of the Berckelang’s people” in the service of the Phrakhlang minister.17) The Javanese was a wealthy merchant in the service of the Kalahom (Department of Defense). The Chinese was probably an interpreter in Phrakhlang. The Mon was Soet, “a low-born woman who acted as an all-purpose liaison between the Dutch and the court” (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 205). According to Davisakd, the linguistic aspects of Siamese cosmopolitanism described above explain why Javanese and Malay terms remained untranslated in the versions of Panji produced by Siamese literary networks. Translating them would have been deemed unnecessary as Malay functioned as one of Ayutthaya’s primary lingua francas. These terms represent linguistic artifacts present at the “moment of exchange in which economic commodities and cultural elements were bargained, bartered, and traded through the medium of Melayu” (Davisakd 2008, 86, 88).18)

There are more mentions of Javanese presence and influences in Patani during the Ayutthaya period.19) For instance, in 1556 King Chairacha (r. 1534–47) summoned Raja Muda of Patani to assist in his campaign against the Burmese. A flotilla of two hundred boats sailed to Ayutthaya as instructed. Upon arriving, the intruders discovered that the Burmese had retreated. This led the raja to mount an (unsuccessful) attack on the weakened Siamese forces. Upon receiving news of this engagement, an unnamed “Ratu of Java” attacked Patani. Nevertheless, his troops arrived after the return of the raja, meaning that the Javanese were wiped out. Another force led by the ruler’s “most successful general” was sent to Patani, but that was also repelled (Fraser 1960, 25).20) The Hikayat Patani describes another attack from Palembang that occurred in either 1549 or 1563 (see Teeuw and Wyatt 1970, 88–90).21) Intriguingly, this involved a conflict between two Palembang-based Javanese noblemen. Despite being military commanders, these men were referred to as Kyai Badar and Kyai Kelasang. Equally striking was their “use of Javanese words,” such as paseban (audience hall), manira (I), pakanira (you), lawang seketeng (outer gate), and rabi (wife).22) A. Teeuw and D.K. Wyatt conjecture that Malay readers of the Hikayat Patani might have been familiar with these terms through local performances of wayang (shadow puppetry) or “literary texts containing Javanese wayang stories.” Both were hugely popular along the east coast of the peninsula in the sixteenth century.23) Furthermore, the quarrel between the kyai is reminiscent of scenes common in wayang. There are other references to the attackers being Javanese from Palembang (ra’yat Jawa Palemban). Whether this refers to language, origin, or affiliation, the Hikayat Patani’s description appears to stress their Javanese characteristics (Teeuw and Wyatt 1970, 239). An unflattering journal entry by Floris in August 1613 mentions attending a performance by Malay women of a Javanese comedy (perhaps a mak yong) (Moreland 1934, 97). Slightly later, during the reign of Raja Biru (r. 1616–24), the bendahara (a powerful position in the Malay palace, analogous to the vizier in a European court) was a “Javanese of the family of the sultan of Mataram” (anak Jawa bangsa sultan Mataram) (Teeuw and Wyatt 1970, 79). Finally, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the number of Javanese slaves in Patani, who might have been descendants of captured soldiers, was significant enough for them to attempt a (failed) rebellion (Moreland 1934, 94–95).

What is the relevance of these insights provided by historians of littoral and mainland Southeast Asia to reconstructing the personalities and processes through which Siamese literary networks adopted and adapted the Panji epic? This epic is likely to have arrived from more than one direction. Although it could have been introduced by the Khmer as early as the turn of the second millennium, most commentators cite members of the Siamese court receiving oral traditions passed on to them by “Malay” or “Javanese” servants. Although these female storytellers would have arrived in Central Thailand more than a century before the dramatic rise in the number of Malays from 1786, little has been written about Javanese and Malays in the Ayutthaya period. More anecdotal evidence about military and artistic interactions between Java and Patani between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can be gleaned from primary and secondary sources. The important—but often overlooked—issue of how “Jawa/Jawah” functioned as toponym and ethnonym, and what the ethnonym “Malay/Melayu” denoted, is the subject of the following section, which explains the confusion or lack of interest in the ethnic identity of the aforementioned storytellers in the Siamese court.

Malay and Javanese in the (Confounding) Southeast Asian Cosmopolitan Soup

Given that Adrian Vickers (2004) does not consider any case studies from Thailand, what is the relevance of his revisionist scholarship on the ethnonyms “Malay” and “Javanese” to our investigation of Thai adaptations of the “Javanese” Panji? First and foremost, his proposal about what “Malay” and “Javanese” did—and did not—denote are based on his analysis of texts produced in a range of Malay and Javanese literary networks (Vickers 2004). Vickers demonstrates ways in which the study of literary texts confirms the complex and ambiguous characteristics of ethnonyms such as “Melayu/Malay” and “Javanese” and the toponym “Jawa/Jawah.” Neither of these can be adequately defined without reference to “literature, geography and language” and interactions provided by European visitors to the region. Like others offering a range of circumstantialist alternatives to primordial perceptions of Malayness, Vickers criticizes attempts to separate “Malay” from “Javanese.”24) Not only does this run against the grain of “indigenous discursive fields,” but the “colonial reconstitution” of these ethnonyms is inseparable from the “reconstitution of the term ‘Java.’” Both Malaysia and Indonesia might represent “invented traditions,” but none of these were “invented from nothing” (Vickers 2004, 26). We add that Malay was a category that was frequently combined with—or used alternately with—Javanese. “Malay” and “Javanese” were ethnonyms commonly employed in descriptions of littoral Southeast Asia, yet both denoted hybrid identities formed through “combinations of antipathies and interchanges predating the one-way street view of late nineteenth century colonialism” (Vickers 2004, 32).25)

Another important detail complicating an already confounding cultural conundrum is ambiguities about how “Jawa/Jawah” functioned as both toponym and ethnonym. No one denies the presence of Javanese in Ayutthaya during the early Ayutthaya period. Nonetheless, not only are references scant and evidence often anecdotal, but Java and Javanese could also be referred to in a number of ways. Anthony Milner comments that the related ethnonym “Jawi” is encountered in regions where Muslim populations are found. These include present-day Cambodia, where Muslims are referred to as Chvea—a local derivation of Jawah. This community claims long-standing and close connections with Patani and Kelantan, where people are also frequently referred to as Jawah or Jawi (as well as Melayu).26) Milner adds that in Cambodia, Chvea may also refer to the entire Malay community regardless of place of origin. Although encompassing people from the island of Java, Chvea also includes populations from “various islands of the Malay Archipelago or the different states on the Peninsula” (Milner 2008, 90).

British observers in the late 1700s were familiar with the land and people “beneath the winds” (de-bawah angin)—a toponym as imprecise as “Jawah” (Milner 2008, 96–97). As a toponym, “Jawah” encompassed Sumatra and possibly Borneo, but English observers in the late seventeenth century occasionally also referred to the entire archipelago as “the Javas.” Similarly, Chinese captains referred to Malacca and Patani as part of Jawa. However, when employed specifically as an ethnonym, “Jawah” could denote Acehnese, Bugis, Malays, and other groups in mainland and littoral Southeast Asia—as well as Javanese. This did not escape the attention of Snouck Hurgronje (2007), who famously commented that in Arabia, “Jawah” denoted all people of the Malay “race.” In addition to this, the term’s geographical breadth spread to Siam, Malacca, and even New Guinea. Intriguingly, it sometimes referred to Southeast Asians who were not Muslims, a detail dealt with by reference to “Jawah Meriki,” which specifically referred to “genuine Javanese” (Hurgronje 2007, 248).

Vickers claims that maintaining dichotomies between literature and history represents one of the “most potent of the positivist legacies, dominating the majority of works in the field” (Vickers 2004, 35). He considers the case study of Malay communities in Ceylon who not only “produced their own literature” but also “copied and maintained some of the standard ‘classics’ of Malay literature.”27) Studying the works produced by this literary network calls into question assertions about the presence of some sort of “pure ‘Malayness’ outside the area usually designated as the Malay world.” For instance, the subject of Hikayat Raden Bagus Gusti was one of the famous Wali Sanga of Java. At the time the British took control of Ceylon, this diaspora community was referred to as Malay; the previous Dutch overlords had referred to them as Javanese. Nonetheless, from “photographs, the costumes, kris and music” of the period, it appears that this community embodied a “mixture of Malay and Javanese styles” (Vickers 2004, 40, 41).

While Vickers (2004, 44) makes no references to either Malay or Javanese specifically in Siam, he demonstrates ways in which the analysis of texts produced by Southeast Asian literary networks supplies unexpected insights into “links and parallels between the cultures of the archipelago.” These include the similarities between Malay and Javanese Panji narratives provided above. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, what “Malay” and “Javanese” referred to as ethnonyms and what “Jawa” denoted as a toponym remained fluid. In the 1800s European “high imperialism” froze these into “strict and exclusive categories.” Nonetheless, despite attempts at freezing and standardizing these terms, they did not operate as either exclusive or separable (Vickers 2004, 54). This explains—although not entirely excuses—the widespread confusion in the secondary literature about the roles of “Javanese” and “Malay” in introducing the Panji epic to the palace in the late Ayutthaya period.


What do the curated empirical and conceptual materials discussed above reveal about the characteristics of the Siamese cosmopolitanism that existed when the “Javanese” Panji was translated into Thai? What is the utility of expanding the units of analysis to include the products of Siamese literary networks, and interrogating “Javanese” and “Malay” agency in both Ayutthaya and Patani? Far from representing some sort of cultural anomaly or outlier, we argue that literary productions of this nature suggest that Siam took a number of pages out of Melaka’s (highly successful) playbook following the latter’s demise in 1511. The most important standard operating procedure was that Melaka fostered the cultural and linguistic cosmopolitanism that had been so good for business. Michael Feener (2010) summarizes the scholarly consensus, describing Melaka as a “cosmopolitan port city located at a key point on the straits between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula.” As such, it became a “thriving hub of commerce, in which Muslims from all around the Indian Ocean rim and beyond came together with non-Muslims from all across Asia and Africa in exchanges of ideas and social practices, as well as commercial goods.” Tomé Pires’s description of this port’s “polyglot merchant population” in the early sixteenth century is well known:

Moors from Cairo, Mecca, Aden, Abyssinians, men of Kilwa, Malinidi, Ormuz, Parsees, Rumes, Turks, Turkomans, Christian Armenians, Gujeratees . . . Merchants from Orissa, Ceylon, Bengal, Arakan, Pegu, Siamese, men of Kedah, Malays, men of Pahang, Patani, Cambodia, Champa, Cochin China, Chinese . . . Moluccas, Banda, Bima, Timor, Madura, Java, Sunda, Palembang, Jambi . . . Pase, Pedir, [and the] Maldives. (Pires 2005, 268, cited in Feener 2010, 485)

The port produced many polyglots as male merchants married local women in port, and many “streams of Islamicate civilisation” fused with local influences—as well as those from China (Feener 2010, 486).

The spread and diffusion of Melaka’s Malay “Islamicate” culture accelerated after its fall to the Portuguese. While Baker has argued that—along with Aceh and Patani—Ayutthaya was a maritime port city, we add that it profited and prospered from Melaka’s demise. In ways that resemble Pires’s account, one of the most widely cited descriptions of Siamese cosmopolitanism that developed from the early sixteenth century is that of Chevalier de Chaumont, written during his visit to Ayutthaya in 1686. This includes the assertion that “There is no city in the East where is seen more different nations than in the capital city of Siam, and where so many different tongues are spoken” (Chaumont 1997).28) Baker and Pasuk note that such an assessment was shared by many of Chaumont’s contemporaries, and that this cultural fluidity was a result of the “gradual accretion of peoples in a port-city over three centuries” (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 203).

Engseng Ho, who has studied Southeast Asia’s “expanding and interconnected diasporas” that impacted port polities throughout the archipelago, identifies “expansive social formations” previously perceived in “fragmentary, partial and disconnected ways.” Furthermore, the “entire archipelago” resembled a crossroad where merchants enjoyed the freedom to change (linguistic repertoire and religious affiliation) where they congregated (Ho 2013, 146–147, 151), for example, a certain Pieter Erberveld, whom Feener describes as a “baptised German Siamese Eurasian.” Some years after his conversion to Islam in Ayutthaya in 1721, Erberveld and his associates were executed in Batavia, with their heads displayed on pikes. Their crime was distributing “Islamic religious amulets containing Arabic script formulae (jimat) and plotting to put an end to VOC control by slaughtering the Christian population of Batavia” (Feener 2010, 495). Feener notes that this convert was one of hundreds of “polyglot, highly mobile and eclectic individuals” who proliferated across Southeast Asia during this period. This case study is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It reminds us that religiously motivated violence by European converts to Islam is far from a new phenomenon, and also—more important for our purposes—that a wide range of transcultural individuals moved between Ayutthaya and Batavia.

However appreciative we might be of what historians, archaeologists, and linguists have contributed to the picture of Siamese cosmopolitanism, we argue for the need to both expand the units of analysis and pursue comparative approaches to Southeast Asian historiography. We have also demonstrated the utility of Malay studies to Thai studies specialists seeking to make sense of Javanese and Malay agency in Ayutthaya. There have been empirical and conceptual elements to arguments about what the adoption and adaptation of Panji reveal about Ayutthaya’s linguistic and cultural milieu, as conceptual innovations lacking empirical ballast will not float very long. There are many ways that scholars can respond to forms of ethnolinguistic and ethnoreligious nationalism in both littoral and mainland Southeast Asia. Trawling the archives and conducting fieldwork between Thailand and the Malay World provides plenty of evidence that fostering cosmopolitanism is not only a sign of strength but also good for business.

Accepted: September 30, 2019


The authors would like to acknowledge the Muslim Studies Centre, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University whose generous funding the 12-month visiting research fellowship make this collaborative project possible. Thanks to Norman Ware for his editing, and the two peer-reviewers who offered a number of extremely helpful comments.


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1) For an analysis of Ayutthaya’s Persian presence, see Marcinkowski (2000; 2004; 2012) and Chularatana (2017). On the French presence in Ayutthaya, see Smithies (1998). Those interested in the Portuguese may consult Smith (2011) and Rosa (2015). Readers wishing to read about the Dutch could consult Ruangsilp (2007) and Borschberg (2014; 2020). On the Japanese in Ayutthaya, see Ishii (1971). For a general treatment of the range of foreigners present in Siamese courts, see Dhirawat na Pombejra (2001).

2) Area studies specialists will be aware of publications filling this gap by pursuing an intentionally comparative approach. On synergies between Thai and Malay studies, see Andaya (1999; 2017), Montesano and Jory (2008), Jory and Saengthong (2009), Joll (2011), and Borschberg (2014, 95–145; 2020).

3) This precludes the introduction of some fascinating material about connections between Siam and Java from the reign of Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910), to immediately after the coup that brought an end to the absolute monarchy, when Prince Paribatra lived in exile in the Siamese palace in Bandung, West Java. For more on this period, see Davisakd (2008, esp. pp. 183–225).

4) Robson notes that the prince also bore the title “Raden Ino,” or “Inu,” which might have been connected with the title “Rakryan i Hino,” referring to a (royal) heir apparent (Robson 1996, 41).

5) An example is the change from Ino to Inao. Robson notes that this change is common in the final syllable of Malay words that have found their way into the Thai lexicon, and that these words are also rendered in a rising tone (Robson 1996, 51).

6) For more on Thai temple murals, including those of Wat Somanat, see Jaiser (2009a; 2009b).

7) On this point Robson agrees, citing slim evidence for contacts between Java and Siam (1996, 51).

8) Readers interested in reading about the relationship between Patani and Ayutthaya should consult Watson Andaya and Andaya (1982), Suwannathat-Pian (2012), Andaya (2017), and Baker and Pasuk (2017b).

9) Baker and Pasuk mention that dramatic traditions that developed outside the court (lakhon nok) included those based on plots in the Fifty Jatakas, and that Thai Jataka contain elements absent in the Pali versions on which they are based. Many originated as “folktales, which were adapted into stories of the Buddha’s past lives” (Baker and Pasuk 2017a, 235). For more on Jataka in Thailand, see Jory (2016).

10) It is worth noting that in 1685, Chevalier de Chaumont observed the presence in Ayutthaya of both Makassarese and “many people of the Island of Java,” and Malays who were mostly slaves but “quite numerous” (Smithies 1995, 43, cited in Davisakd 2008, 89). This was approximately a century before the arrival of massive numbers of Malay war slaves (Thai chalei) in Bangkok following campaigns against Kedah and Patani between the late 1780s and the 1830s (see Bradley 2012).

11) On the spelling of Melaka/Malacca, Peter Borschberg (2014, 264) points out that in European cartography during the early modern period, the city of Melaka is spelled differently from Malacca, which often referred to the wider Malay Peninsula.

12) Robson adds that during the 1930s in Kelantan, wayang was referred to as wayang Jawa, and that local repertoires included versions of the Panji epic. This was distinct from wayang Siam, which drew more on versions of the Rama epic (Robson 1996, 48). For more on wayang Jawa and wayang Siam, see Scott-Kemball (1959), Sweeney (1972), Wright (1981), and Osnes (2010).

13) These are: Hikayat Misa Taman Jayeng Kusuma, Hikayat Endang Malat Rasmi, Hikayat Dewa Asmara Jaya, Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, Kuda Semirang Seri Panji Pandairupa, Syair Angreni, Syair Ken Tambuhan, and Hikayat Panji Semirang.

14) Indeed, Dhirawat na Pombejra has documented material exchanges between Ayutthaya and Java in the late 1680s, specifically Javanese horses and Siamese elephants (2001).

15) For more on this Iberian mission in the early 1500s, see Van Roy (2017, 42–43).

16) “Diplomatic Letters 1625–1812.” For diplomatic letters between the VOC and Ayutthaya, see Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia and The Corts Foundation (2016).

17) Phrakhlang was the Ministry of External Relations and Maritime Trading Affairs (Breazeale 1999, 5; see Ruangsilp 2016). “Berckelang” was the Portuguese term for Phrakhlang.

18) On the topic of not all foreign words being translated in multilingual Southeast Asia, it is worth noting that the copy of Panji tales from Kelantan translated by R.O. Winstedt was estimated to have been composed in the 1780s. While written in “excellent Malay,” it contains “many Javanese but few Arabic and no Portuguese loanwords” (Winstedt 1949, 54).

19) Before addressing the issue of the presence of Javanese in Patani during the Ayutthaya period, Robson points out that while Sai, Kelantan, and Trengganu are all listed in Desawarnana (composed for the Majapahit royal court in 1365), Patani is not. In its place is the toponym Langkasuka, which suggests that at the time Patani had not yet been established (Robson 1996, 44–45). For more early Javanese references to parts of present-day Thailand and the Siamese Malay States before the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, see Robson (1997).

20) Fraser cites Wood (1933, 19).

21) The most important treatments of the Hikayat Patani include Wyatt (1967), Siti Hawa Haji Salleh (1992), Bradley (2006a; 2006b; 2009), and Porath (2011).

22) This is also mentioned by Robson (1996, 47).

23) The decorated boats that the east coast of the Thai/Malay Peninsula was famous for included characters from not only the local wayang repertoire but also the Panji epic (Coatalen 1982, 86–99).

24) Adrian Vickers is one of a number of scholars who have argued that until the late nineteenth century, the ethnonym “Malay” was a “fluid category” (see also Barnard 2004; Milner 2008; Joll 2011, 66–75; Maznah Mohamad and Syed Mhd. Khairudin Aljunied 2011).

25) For a discussion of colonial discourse in Southeast Asia during the nineteenth century, see Noor (2016).

26) On Jawi in South Thailand, see Joll (2013) and Le Roux (1998).

27) For more on the intriguing case of Sri Lanka’s Malay diaspora, see Ricci (2012; 2013a; 2013b).

28) Cited in Baker and Pasuk (2017a, 203–204).


Vol. 8, No. 2, Kanjana Hubik THEPBORIRUK


Contents>> Vol. 8, No. 2

Dear Thai Sisters: Propaganda, Fashion, and the Corporeal Nation under Phibunsongkhram

Kanjana Hubik Thepboriruk*

* กัญจนา เทพบริรักษ์ Department of World Languages and Culture, Northern Illinois University, 335 Watson Hall, DeKalb, IL 60115, USA; Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 520 College View Court, DeKalb, IL 60115, USA
e-mail: kanjana[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.8.2_233

Embodying modernity and nationality was a self-improvement task for fin de siècle Siamese monarchs. In post-1932 Siam, kingly bodies no longer wielded the semantic and social potency necessary to inhabit the whole of a nation. Siam required a corporeal reassignment to signify a new era. This study examines previously neglected propaganda materials the Phibunsongkhram regime produced in 1941 to recruit women for nation building, specifically, the texts supplementing Cultural Mandate 10 addressed to the “Thai Sisters.” I argue that with the Thai Sisters texts, the regime relocated modernization and nation building from male royal bodies onto the bodies of women. Moreover, these texts specified gendered roles in nation building and inserted nationalism into the private lives of women by framing nationbuilding tasks as analogous to self-improvement and the biological and emotional experiences of a mother. Vestimentary nation building prescribed by Mandate 10 turned popular magazines into patriotic battlegrounds where all Thai Sisters were gatekeepers and enforcement came in the form of photo spreads, advertisements, and beauty pageants. By weaving nation building into fashion and the private lives of women, the Phibunsongkhram regime made the (self-)policing of women’s bodies—formerly restricted to elite women—not only essential but also fashionable and patriotic for all Thai Sisters.

Keywords: Thailand, nation building, women, fashion

I Introduction

On October 4, 1941 various Thai government ministers gathered in the capital of Nong Khai Province to celebrate the opening of a district office of the Publicity Department. Attendees at the celebration received a small commemorative volume titled “Collection of Mandates, Codes, and Guidelines for National Culture.”1) There is one copy of this commemorative volume in the Rare Books Archives at the National Library of Thailand, its pages crumbling and held together by twine. The booklet is a collection of supplemental publications to the 12 Cultural Mandates.

Nestled in the 188 pages are seven documents addressed to “Thai Sisters” (phi nong satri thai) published by various government agencies of the Phibunsongkhram regime in 1941. There are no texts in this volume that directly address Thai men. It is noteworthy that the Phibunsongkhram regime would specifically target women during this transformative period in Thai history and then later deem such publications valuable enough to be reprinted in a commemorative volume. Not only does this remarkable subset of texts offer a glimpse into the regime’s notion of the ideal modern woman, it is also one of the earliest examples of the government’s attempt to recruit women for the task of nation building. Why were women targeted for these texts, and to what end? What do these texts reveal about the nationalization and modernization of Siamese women during that time?

This particular period of Thai history has very few analyses focusing on women, especially in English, despite Phibunsongkhram enjoying a recent resurgence of interest among scholars of Thai studies.2) The discovery and analysis of these neglected archival materials show that the regime saw it necessary to produce materials specifically for women; thus, women’s role and participation in nation building during this transformative period warrants further study. The language in such propaganda, moreover, is always deliberate, and a textual analysis of these Thai Sisters documents can reveal the nationalistic ideology toward women. The current study explores how the Phibunsongkhram regime recruited women for nation building through propaganda and, in the process, conscripted women’s bodies as corporeal proxies for the nation. It is my hope that this study will help to advance discussions on the condition of Siamese women during this era as well as show the importance of these texts in Thai national history.

I use translations from Thak et al. (1978) for the Cultural Mandates. All other Thai-English translations are my own, including all translations of primary sources referenced herein. English transliterations of Thai, including names of individuals, follow the standards prescribed by the Royal Institute of Thailand (1999), unless a different transliteration is already well established and widely accepted. Transliterations of names always follow those used by the individuals when applicable. Thai words are transliterated, italicized, and given in parentheses after the English translation in the text.

II Modern Nation

Making of a Nation

The Kingdom of Siam went through an intense period of transformation starting in the mid-nineteenth century. Higher levels of literacy in the growing middle class combined with new forms of mass media such as the cinema and wireless radio fueled considerable social, economic, and political changes in Siam that continued well into the interwar period (Barmé 2002).3) The dismantling of traditional power structures after the Great War, including the disintegration of the monarchy system, was buoyed by a worldwide undercurrent of social, economic, and political anxiety and instability. Several conservative military regimes grew to fill the power vacuum left by deposed monarchs.4) Like elsewhere in the world, the interwar years in Siam were especially tumultuous, in this case punctuated by the 1932 coup d’état that ended absolute monarchy and resulted in the abdication of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) in 1935.5)

In the century leading up to the 1932 coup, nation building and modernization was a central theme in the public lives of Siamese Kings. The Kings of House Chakri, established in 1782 with Bangkok as its new seat of power, traditionally borrowed the aesthetics and material culture from nearby empires in China and India to sanctify and legitimize their claims on the Siamese throne (Peleggi 2002, 12–13). But by the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), Europe had become the new locus of “progress” and “civilization” and Siamese royal culture began its retreat from the Indo- and Sino-spheres. Linguistically, the Pali-Sanskrit term arayatham was replaced by one modeled after the English word for “civilization,” siwilai. Rama IV, his son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), and his grandson King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) gradually recalibrated the Siamese royal image to align more closely with the West and looked to their European peers as the source for siwilai (ibid).

The pursuit of siwilai was visually accompanied by a gradual shift toward Western modes of dress among Siamese elites. The modernization of Siamese royal bodies through the conspicuous consumption of and participation in Western culture was the visual representation of Siam as a modern nation (Peleggi 2002). Siwilai, as indexed by the monarchs’ increasingly Westernized public image, and the very act of being photographed looking so, was a kingly task. Through this public performance of siwilai, Siamese Kings positioned themselves as benevolent arbiters of the West, patrolling the cultural frontline against any pernicious foreign ideas and proffering a uniquely Siamese vision of modernity for aspiring elites and other subjects to emulate.

Beyond looking civilized and aligning Siamese aesthetics with Western ideals, the quest for siwilai also required a bifurcation of traditional Siamese genders into male/masculine and female/feminine. Western records of Siamese modes of dress from as early as the seventeenth century show that both men and women had the same style of short hair and wore the same phanung or chong kraben to cover their lower bodies.6) Unaccustomed to local ways of gender demarcation, Westerners were left unsettled and disoriented by their inability to visually distinguish men from women (ibid). As Peter Jackson (2003) points out, the Western-inspired system of genders not only created new social distinctions between men and women in Siamese society but also left no room for traditional genders that did not fit into the male/female binary.

Elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia, traditional ways of presenting and marking gender were cleaving into binaries under the weight of colonial powers and fashion while previously unisex aspects of local cultures were becoming gendered. Europeans indexed the perceived lack of gender distinction in Southeast Asian modes of dress with a lack of civility and culture and began assigning gender to traditionally non-gendered or unisex fashion. The Cambodian sampot and the short jacket that both men and women wore, for example, became feminine and masculine, respectively (Edwards 2001). Like in Siam, unisex hairstyles in French Cambodia (shorn short) and British Burma (long and coiled atop the head) became gendered (ibid; Ikeya 2011).

Siamese Kings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were keenly aware of Western prejudices against unisex sartorial practices of the Siamese people and their neighbors. King Mongkut (Rama IV) ordered all to wear upper garments when in royal audience. His son Rama V, who was famously educated by an English governess, issued the first royal decree on clothing for the general public in 1899 that limited what should be worn in public and at court. The decree marks the beginning of the relationship between morality and clothing in Siam (Jackson 2003). Rama VI, who was educated entirely in England, further pushed for gendered fashion and discouraged women at court from traditional Siamese styles, thus rendering formerly unisex hairstyles and chong kraben masculine. By the time Rama VII came into power, the King and the men and women in his court were entirely covered up, sported contemporary Western hairstyles, and were appropriately masculine and feminine by Western standards.

The canonization of the Siamese King’s body (and, by extension, any other bodies in his household) to represent the nation and the metonymic use of Siam to mean the King were not novel. Ernst Kantorowicz’s detailed work The King’s Two Bodies (1997) shows that the twin representation of kingly bodies as the realm and the individual can be traced back to the medieval period in Europe, the linguistic manifestations of which can be found in the use of the “royal we.” The bodies of royal women, likewise, served as political proxies and were exchanged in diplomatic transactions through strategic marriages. By the eighteenth century, the emblematic binding between the King’s body and the state was so strong that French revolutionaries were able to use corporeal metaphors to attack the man and the institution. The corporeality of the French state in Louis XVI’s body culminated in making his beheading a compulsory part of the destruction of the ancien régime (De Baecque 1993). In post-1932 Siam, kingly bodies no longer wielded the semantic and social potency necessary to embody the whole of a nation. Siam required a corporeal reassignment to signify a new era.

Phibunsongkhram’s Cultural Mandates

Army Major General Plaek Phibunsongkhram maneuvered his way into power in 1938. Phibunsongkhram was a member of the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon), a group comprising Western-educated civil servants, military officers, and minor royals. The group orchestrated the 1932 coup d’état that ended absolute monarchy in Siam. Shortly after his ascent to premiership, Phibunsongkhram followed his European contemporaries and rebranded himself as “The Leader” (phu nam). He also attempted to ritually fill the symbolic void left by Rama VII’s relatively recent abdication and the child-king Rama VIII’s geographic distance in Switzerland (Gray 1991, 50). Visually, the regime ordered the public to replace pictures of the deposed Rama VII with those of Phibunsongkhram (Thamsook 1978, 237). The army general, however, lacked the cultural legitimacy of prelapsarian Siamese Kings, and the Phibunsongkhram government needed to canonize a new body as the nation.

The regime’s nation-building campaign aimed to transform the Kingdom of Siam into the nation of Thailand and Siamese subjects into Thai citizens by thrusting Siam into modernity and, paradoxically, by building a democratic and constitutional nation with their unelected government. To that end, Phibunsongkhram and his chief ideologue, Luang Wichit Watthakan, created the Cultural Mandates (ratthaniyom) to be the centerpiece of their social policies.7) The regime issued a total of 12 Cultural Mandates between June 1939 and January 1942. The mandates transformed Siam into Thailand and all people living within the borders into Thai/Tai people (Mandates 1 and 3); dictated new and modern ways of life (Mandates 7, 11, and 12); designated a mode of dress (Mandate 10); described duties of nation building (Mandates 2, 5, 7, and 9); and sanctified the nation and, in a much lesser manner, the monarchy as unifying forces for the Thai people (Mandates 4, 6, and 8).

Mandate 10, issued on January 15, 1941, is particularly interesting because it imposed, for the first time and at a national level, a new and modern aesthetic of self-presentation for everyone regardless of social class. The mandate did not apply uniformly to men and women, as evidenced by the body of texts aimed at the Thai Sisters.8) The mandate states that “Thais should not appear in public, populous places, or in municipal areas without proper clothing . . .” (Thak et al. 1978, 253, emphasis added). The Thai term in the original text is riap roi, which has many meanings. When used to describe inanimate objects, it means “tidy,” “orderly,” or “in good order.” But when describing a person, the term means “well-mannered” or “polite.” A task that is riap roi is one that is “ready” or “all set.” Taken together, to dress riap roi is to present oneself as someone who is tidy, well-mannered, and ready for nation building.

At the height of Siamese cultural and political influence in mainland Southeast Asia, vestimentary regulations through enforcements of sumptuary laws affected only those whose ranks and positions required identifiers to visually partition them from the rest of society (Conway 2002). Members of the growing middle class emulated the sartorial practices of traditional elites to visually index their social aspirations. Commoners outside of Bangkok’s cultural spheres were left mostly unaffected by such regulations and only needed passive knowledge of those visual markers pertaining to official rank. With the issuance of Mandate 10, the regime not only erased—albeit just in theory—the sartorial class separations previously outlined by sumptuary laws but also created a uniformed way to present Thai identity at a national level. Without a monarch to embody modernity and the nation, the burden fell on everyone.

As a supplement to the Cultural Mandates, the regime produced and disseminated various texts to clarify and explicate the barrage of modern demands made on the public. These supplemental texts took advantage of all available modes of communication and came in many forms. The texts were not intended solely for the general population and were (re-)printed for civil servants in internal bulletins such as Khao Khotsanakan (Publicity News), a magazine for employees of the Publicity Department. The Phibunsongkhram government had full censorship control of information, so popular media, too, had to participate in creating the ideological echo chamber that was the cultural backdrop to their totalitarian nation building. Media outlets that refused to participate or had values deemed to be “against national interests” were shut down (Thamsook 1978, 244).

The following sections will discuss examples from supplemental texts that the Phibunsongkhram regime produced for Mandate 10 and their influence in contemporary print media. The supplemental texts targeted women and were addressed to the “Thai Sisters” (phi nong satri thai) and “Esteemed Thai Sisters/Ladies Everywhere” (phi nong satri thai thi nap thue/than suphap satri phu mi kiat thang lai). Analyses are pulled from popular print media, periodicals, and internal government magazines. I argue that in the absence of a kingly body, the regime produced the Thai Sisters texts in order to: (1) transfer the physical burden of modernity and nation building onto the bodies of women, (2) specify gendered roles for nation building by extending nationalism into the private lives of women, and (3) thereby create an environment for women to self-police under the guise of patriotism and fashion. These supplemental texts offer an insightful cross-section of the regime’s ideology toward modernity, womanhood, and women’s gendered role in nation building.

Dear Thai Sisters

Between March and September 1941, the regime disseminated eight supplemental texts in rapid succession to complement Mandate 10. The texts (listed below) targeted women and were addressed to “Thai Sisters” and “Esteemed Ladies Everywhere.” Together, they provide an enormous amount of detail on how women were to put Mandate 10 into practice.

1. The Prime Minister’s Plea (For Our Thai Sisters), March 14, 1941

2. The Prime Minister’s Plea for Our Thai Sisters, Titled “Wearing Hats,” June 14, 1941

3. Ways to Wear Hats for Thai Ladies, speech delivered by Mr. Ensee Intharayothin over the wireless, June 19, 1941

4. Explanation, Titled “Finding Hats,” June 20, 1941

5. Ways to Wear Hats for Thai Ladies, Part 2, speech delivered by Mr. Ensee Intharayothin over the wireless, June 29, 1941

6. Explanation, Titled “Wearing Hats into Suan Kulap Palace,” July 1, 1941

7. Guidelines on Ways of Dress for Ladies

a. Part 1, August 27, 1941

b. Part 2, speech delivered by Amon Osathanon over the wireless, September 2, 1941

The discourse of the Thai Sisters texts was always deferential in nature, and the tone ranged from official (“Finding Hats” and “Suan Kulap”) to informal (First Plea, Second Plea). Though framed as a series of personal dialogues with women, the content, in reality, made concrete commands on their bodies and minds.

Signatories of the texts included both individuals and government units. Based on the relatively uniform style, it is unlikely that each text was personally crafted by the signatories. The texts were most likely written and approved by a group in the Publicity Department. Signatories such as Phibunsongkhram and Ensee Intharayothin, the head of the Office of Consumer Welfare, even when presented as individuals, simply anthropomorphized the regime. The sole female signatory was Amon Osathanon. Amon sat on the council that outlined the Guidelines for Women’s Dress and was married to Wilat Osathanon, a member of the 1932 Khana Ratsadon who served as the regime’s deputy minister of transport. Amon’s address was the last of the Thai Sisters texts. Besides having the friendliest discourse of all the texts, utilizing a conversational approach, humor, and the pronoun “we,” her radio address was otherwise unremarkable.

III Corporeal Nation

Patriotic Propriety

The first message from Phibunsongkhram to the “Thai Sisters” was on March 14, 1941 and titled “The Prime Minister’s Plea (for Our Thai Sisters).”9) In the plea, Phibunsongkhram asked the Thai Sisters to celebrate the victorious return of “lost territories” from the French by doing three things: (1) grow out their hair, following ancient customs or in modern styles; (2) cease wearing cloth styled into pantaloons (chong kraben) and, instead, wear sarong-style wrap skirts (pha thung) in the traditional ways or following modern styles; and (3) cease wrapping a single piece of cloth on their torso or baring their upper bodies and instead wear a shirt.

The first theme that emerges from this plea is that the Thai Sisters were required to modernize their bodies to modernize the nation. Though the regime did not overtly pursue siwilai as did the Siamese Kings, the path toward nation building laid out for women in the plea was similar to the one taken by Rama IV and his successors. Nation building for the newly minted Thailand was still a corporeal task, to be done on and to the body, but this time focused on the bodies of women.10) Modernity remained an individual responsibility that was concurrently a public performance to be consumed by and for the benefit of others.

The plea demanded that women become Thai by physically modifying their bodies (by growing out their hair) and modifying the ways their bodies were displayed (by changing the modes of dress). Nation building and patriotism in this context was a public display and performance for the Thai sisterhood. When the plea was issued, many women in the kingdom—such as those from the Lanna/Lao, Burmese, Malay, and Chinese communities—already wore their hair long, covered their upper bodies, and wore traditional wrap skirts (with the exception of Chinese women, who wore trousers). Indeed, wearing a wrap skirt and having long hair were salient visual markers of non-Siamese women just a few decades earlier (McIntosh 2000; Woodhouse 2012).

A second theme shows modernity to be a synthesis of tradition and innovation, the new and the old. As E. Reynolds (2004, 100–101) shows, the Phibunsongkhram regime, like other contemporary nationalist political movements of that era, aimed to build a new and idealized national identity that was deeply rooted in a glorified (imagined) past and to create a new nation from a cultural palimpsest of past empires. Imagined linkages to the past as part of nation building were not unique to Thailand or the Phibunsongkhram regime. Four years earlier in Italy, Benito Mussolini had added the phrase “Founder of the Empire” (Fondatore dell’Impero) to his official title, linking his fascist regime to the Roman Empire. Adolf Hitler, likewise, positioned his regime, the Third Reich, as the imperial successor to the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire when he became chancellor in 1933. In March 1939, the Phibunsongkhram regime’s ideologue Luang Witchit Watthakan delivered a radio speech titled “Sukhothai Culture” that tethered the soon-to-be Thailand and Thainess to an idealized ancient kingdom. Modern Thainess as encoded in the Second Plea was a new fashion variation on a traditional theme.

Less than two weeks after the prime minister’s plea was issued, Chiwit Thai (Thai Life) magazine reprinted an illustration from a book titled Building Oneself (Fig. 1). The book contains useful pictures to show appropriate (modern and civilized) and inappropriate (backward and uncivilized) behavior in both the private and public spheres. Building oneself, after all, was to be done publicly at an individual level and encompassed all dimensions of daily life. Large letters above the illustration read “Is this still fine?” and the picture shows a woman hanging laundry by the roadside with the following caption:


Fig. 1 A Picture from a Book Titled Building Oneself, Reprinted in Chiwit Thai (March 26, 1941)


Our land is developed and prosperous. Even the streets are large and wide. If hang-drying clothes on the roadside is fine, if baring your chest is fine, will you ever realize that this sight is weighing down progress?

The woman pictured sports a traditional cropped hairstyle, is bare-chested, and wears the recently prohibited chong kraben pantaloons. This Thai Sister clearly did not heed the prime minister’s plea.

Interestingly, the laundry she is hanging comprises a pair of modern male trousers, complete with a zipper closure and belt loops, and a collared shirt. Her house has a Western-style picket fence, yet the woman is portrayed as being stuck in the past. A man wearing a modern-style shirt, trousers, and shoes walks on the other side of the street, holding a flat, rectangular portfolio that indexes his modern literacy. Passers-by look on from a Volkswagen Beetle. The choice of a German vehicle here is significant. The picture was reprinted in the magazine after Nazi Germany launched a successful attack on Yugoslavia and can be interpreted as a nod to Germany’s rising power and the importance of how Thailand was to be seen by the Third Reich.11) The message for the Thai Sister here is clear: she must improve herself for the nation and keep in step with the West, lest she be left behind as deadweight while others pass her by.

Phibunsongkhram’s plea, in summary, asks the Thai Sisters to embody a modern Thai womanhood through the implementation of Mandate 10. Modern Thainess as conceptualized in the plea did not contradict or exist in opposition to the future or the past. Thai Sisters could be modern in a way that was both traditionally Thai and fashionably modern by following the demand of the plea. Through this text, the regime conscripted women to fulfill a nationalist program, one in which they must build the nation with their bodies. The plea presents a cultural binary whereby the two pathways to modernity and patriotism exist together and not in opposition, an idea that would continue to reverberate in future messages to Thai Sisters. According to the plea, the only unacceptable choice would be for a Thai Sister to continue as before, without improvement and without change.

The Nation Child and Private Patriotism

Patriotism and nation building are never restricted to the public lives of citizens. This section will offer examples of how nationalism was internalized into the private lives of Thai Sisters through the appropriation of motherhood for nation building. A. Tansman (2009) shows that despite the Japanese government’s pervasive and persistent penetration into the private lives of Japanese citizens, there remained an “interiority” the regime was unable to conquer. But once nationalism was internalized by individuals, it surreptitiously seeped into the aesthetics of national culture in ways that were undetectable, even to those who publicly resisted against propaganda. These private moments of patriotism and internalized nationalism are what crafted the cultural tapestry that served as the backdrop for pre-World War II Japanese nation building. Though Tansman’s study was not gendered, the concept of “private patriotism” is useful in the analysis of the Thai Sisters propaganda texts.

Meanwhile, in Italy and Germany the two governments had already taken measures to expand nation building into citizens’ private spheres. The fascist and Nazi regimes, through various policies, gradually unraveled the public lives of women until their participation in nation building was restricted to the private confines of home, while simultaneously redrawing the boundaries of womanhood to comprise only two roles, wife and mother. In this way, Italian and German women were forced to internalize nationalism and perform patriotism and citizenry in private as individuals, while men’s participation was expected to be public (De Grazia 1992; Guenther 2004, 92–93).

In 1941 Thailand, the Phibunsongkhram regime was just beginning its advance into the interiority of the Thai Sisters’ lives. Three months after the First Plea on June 15, 1941, the premier addressed women for the second time with “The Prime Minister’s Plea for Our Thai Sisters, Titled ‘Wearing Hats.’”12) The speech added hats to the prescribed patriotic uniform in addition to the long hair, skirts, and covered torsos. The Second Plea is significantly longer than the first and is its ideological counterpart, the content dedicated to espousing the moral duty of citizens. The discourse is more formal than the First Plea and addresses the female audience as “All Esteemed Thai Sisters” (phi nong satri thai thi nap thue thang lai).

The Second Plea begins as a dialogue between Phibunsongkhram and the Esteemed Thai Sisters on the definition of a nation and the need for nation building. Between the lines, the text shows that there were nation-building skeptics with whom Phibunsongkhram wanted to directly engage (paragraphs 2–3). Here, the prime minister reaffirms that women must take responsibility for nation building in very concrete and personal ways. Whereas the First Plea mandated a patriotic uniform, the Second Plea situates All Esteemed Thai Sisters as mothers who have a duty to nurture and care for their child-nation:

[Nation building] is the same as when we have a child. You all try to mold and educate your child so that they become better. Few would allow their child to be illiterate, starve, or get sick. Whatever you would do for your child is what you must do for Nation Building. (paragraph 3)

The regime achieved two tasks with the Second Plea. First, the text situates nation building within the private, moral lives of women as mothers. Nation building in the First Plea was material, external, and public, something that could be acquired and performed to and with others. But in this Second Plea, the task of nation building becomes an internal, individual, and private act to be done in the home. By equating the tasks and responsibilities of nation building with those of motherhood, the regime superimposes patriotic expectations onto women’s most salient social role, one that carries moral, emotional, and biological weight.13) Patriotism via motherhood, in this context, becomes a natural part of idealized womanhood and a communal yet private activity on a national scale for the benefit of the mother (woman) and child (nation).

Motherhood as nation building was not restricted solely to ideology. The regime expected the Thai Sisters to also build the nation by producing more citizens. Whereas the perpetuation of the Siamese kingdom was embodied by the King and his many children, the virility of the Thai nation in 1941 could not rest on the teenage body of Rama VIII, who was only 14 when Phibunsongkhram came into power. Women and their bodies were now responsible for the proliferation of the Thai nation and the Thai people. The nationalization of women’s wombs culminated in the creation of prizes rewarding mothers for the number of children they had and the subsequent creation of Thai Mother’s Day in 1943.14)

On October 13, 1941, a photo spread in Tai Mai or “New Tai” magazine featured two women, Wanphen Chuayprasit and Soi Limthongkhaw, who received prizes for having the highest number of children (Fig. 2). Wanphen (top), a mother of 8, was rewarded for having the most children born since 1932, while Soi (bottom), a mother of 12, was rewarded for having the most children in a category with no time limit. The two mothers are photographed with their husbands and children, who are dressed in accordance with Mandate 10 and the prime minister’s two pleas, complete with hats. Wanphen and Soi received their prizes at Amphon Park on October 4, 1941 at an event under the patronage of La-iad Phibunsongkhram, the prime minister’s wife and the mother of his six children.15) The picture of Wanphen and Soi, shown to be compliant in their Western clothes and prolific in their motherhood, presents them as exemplary Thai Sisters for the new nation.


Fig. 2 The Two Winners of Motherhood Prizes (Tai Mai, October 13, 1941)


Besides elevating hat-wearing mothers as the ideal woman, the Second Plea also reaffirms the corporeality of the Thai nation on women’s bodies. The Second Plea defines the term “nation building” (sang chat) as having three sequential components and uses lexical similarities to draw ideological parallels between the task of nation building (sang chat) and self-improvement (sang tong eng). Any improvements made to the self, as was the case for Siamese Kings of yesteryears, would be for the sake of the nation. But in this context, self-improvement could not be achieved by a Thai Sister without self-sacrifice because the child-nation was an extension of her own body.

The first step toward nation building was for the Thai Sisters to improve themselves to befit the prestige of their great nation. Self-improvement consisted of (1) maintaining one’s health by “nourishing yourself so that you are strong [and] free of sickness and disease”; (2) adjusting one’s behavior; (3) dressing “properly and appropriately, in the same manner as in other civilized nations”; (4) diligently working in one’s occupation; (5) diligently learning and seeking new knowledge; and (6) “diligently following the government’s suggestions for self-improvement and persevering until you have succeeded in every way” (paragraph 4). At around the same time, the regime also began a morning exercise radio broadcast, and magazines such as Chiwit Thai and Tai Mai began featuring exercises in their women’s columns (Fig. 3) (Kongsakon 2002).


Fig. 3 The Cover of Tai Mai Magazine Showing a Woman Exercising Along with the Daily Radio Broadcast (September 1, 1941)


Nation building through self-improvement now required physical changes to the bodies of women in the form of good nutrition and exercise, in addition to the prescribed dress code. As the “returned” territories of French Indochina restored the imagined integrity of the geo-body of Thailand, the newly prescribed patriotic uniform and modern Thai lifestyle would improve and make whole the bodies of the Thai Sisters.16) Those who did not comply would be morally and physically unfit and, therefore, deadweight for the Thai nation. Nation building through self-improvement in this era was no longer reserved for Siamese monarchs wishing to gain entry into modernity but was deemed a moral imperative for all Thai citizens. Even leisurely activities would later be categorized under the umbrella of self-improvement in Mandate 11.17)

The second step toward nation building was for the Thai Sisters to improve their families. Successful self-improvement was required for nation building, as this second task could begin only once the women had already improved themselves as prescribed. In comparison to the first requirement, the second was reasonably straightforward. To improve the family, the Thai Sisters had to be frugal, find some unused land to make a home, take care of this home, and educate their children. The third and final step asked that women extend their contribution to the common good beyond their homes. These three components of nation building, if efficaciously executed by the Thai Sisters, would help the nation prepare for “imminent conflict with powerful nations” (paragraph 5).

The Second Plea defines, in both concrete and ideological terms, the duties of citizens. The regime presented self-improvement as the heart of modern Thai citizenry. Nation building was defined as voluntary, cooperative, and deeply personal sacrifices, something internal and private for women as individuals. Within this context, nation building entered the realm of women’s personal lives and homes. Thai Sisters were now required to devoutly fulfill their prescribed roles as mothers to the Thai child-nation and proliferate the Thai family/race. This sense of private nationalism was to complement the outward application of these concepts on women’s bodies as the visual representation of progress and civility.

Patriotism as Fashion

Fashion has always been a political tool, as evidenced by the ways in which fin de siècle Siamese monarchs used modes of dress and Western accoutrements to perform modernity. This section will show how the world of fashion aided the construction of nationalistic ideals and the internalization of patriotism of the Thai Sisters more effectively than government policies. R. L. Blaszczyk (2009, 10) defines fashion, even in its most benign interpretation, as “a cultural phenomenon growing out of the interactions of individuals and institutions.” She further categorizes producers of fashion into two groups: tastemakers and intermediaries (ibid., 6). Together, these two groups are the ones who are responsible for suspending fashion in “the gel of culture,” and in the case of 1941 Thailand the culture was nation building. Whereas fashion tastemakers aim to create and pilot trends, generally producing top-down effects on the fashion world, fashion intermediaries manage the necessary interactions between consumers and those who sell fashion. Under this framework, it is the intermediaries—the popular press and women who make and sell fashion—who have the most impact, despite being largely uncredited for their work in the fashion world (ibid.). Fashion, under this definition, is a process and a system that is the product of individuals, institutions (including the individuals who make up the institutions), and culture.

Nation building as a fashion, then, goes beyond government policies and propaganda and is not the sole responsibility of any one entity. The Phibunsongkhram regime, together with fashion tastemakers and intermediaries, constructed the fashionably patriotic Thai woman. Popular media, in even more insidious ways than public policies, contributed to the interweaving of nationalism into the world of fashion. So when the prime minister acquiesced in his Second Plea by saying “I defer to all the Thai Sisters to please consider what is internationally fashionable,” the regime was yielding to the fashion tastemakers and intermediaries (paragraph 11). In the hands of elite Thai women (tastemakers) and magazine editors and writers (intermediaries), patriotism and nationalism quietly entered into the daily beauty regimen of the Thai Sisters and became fodder for female social interactions. The regime was very specific about how women were to put Mandate 10 into practice with the prime minister’s two pleas, but seemingly it did not receive the desired level of public cooperation.

Months after the issuance of Mandate 10, the regime continued to struggle with a lack of public compliance despite its multilateral efforts to promote the new dress code. Softer measures intended to publicly encourage compliance on all levels of society, such as clothing pageants, fashion flea markets, hat-making workshops, and making the new dress code a requisite for entry into events at Amphon Park, had failed. The Thai Sisters had not internalized patriotism and nation building, and nationalism stubbornly remained on the exterior and in public.

During a parliamentary meeting on September 6, 1941, four days after the last of the Thai Sisters texts, the regime tightened enforcement and issued a resolution to “maintain the sanctity of the Cultural Mandates” (Publicity Department 1941, 170–171). The resolution stated that those who were not dressed in accordance with Mandate 10 would not be allowed to enter government buildings and other public places, would not receive services from government agencies, and would not be allowed to use public transportation. The resolution concluded with a request for private businesses to cooperate with the government by putting in place similar restrictions. In all the ways that the regime had, thus far, failed to make patriotism a daily routine for the Thai Sisters, the world of fashion would succeed.

Hats were not new in Thailand. Neither were the various ways of wearing a hat. But, nevertheless, the Thai Sisters were seemingly resistant to the idea and struggled with how to wear hats in a “modern” and “civilized” manner. The innovation of wearing decorative hats (as opposed to functional work hats) seemed difficult to reconcile as part of the existing cultural praxis, and confusion and resistance continued well into 1941. That is why, perhaps, much of the public discussion on dress code, whether initiated by the regime or by the mass media, was dedicated to the ways hats and hat wearing fitted into the new schema of Thainess. Amon, throughout her radio address in September 1941, had to placate traditionalists and disabuse them of the notion that wearing hats would transgress Thai cultural norms:

There have been problems and confusion regarding how to pay respects when wearing hats. Some people misunderstood that when wearing hats, we cannot pay respects or prostrate as customary because hats are European. [The Council on the Guidelines for Women’s Dress] firmly believes that the use of international customs must not be a reason for abandoning the great Thai culture and behavior. The use of hats also must not cause us to abandon our manners and etiquette (khwam suphap riap roi). (Guidelines, part 2, paragraph 9)

Ensee Intharayothin, the head of the Office of Consumer Welfare, took to the airwaves twice to appeal to the Esteemed Ladies Everywhere. Ensee delivered his first treatise on millinery matters, appropriately titled “Ways of Wearing Hats,” on June 19, 1941.18) The speech provided excruciating details on hat-wearing history, fashion, and etiquette; and to conclude, Ensee pleaded for women to “help each other think, help each other improve, as a way to promote our culture in [the hat-wearing] method of nation building” (last paragraph).

Ensee’s concluding remark recruited the Thai Sisters to be benevolent gatekeepers of the patriotic uniform. The speech, in effect, deputized all who participated in the world of fashion as potential enforcers of patriotism and nationalized the self-policing of women’s bodies and self-presentation as a form of nation building. Moreover, the task of self-policing was framed as a way for the Thai Sisters to improve themselves and help other women, reiterating the need for women to make physical changes to their bodies for the nation. The policing of women’s bodies prior to 1932 applied only to upper-class women whose self-presentation, lineage, and matrimonial linkages were scrutinized and carefully curated. Women with no rank generally had freedom in choosing their spouse and their manner of dress (Loos 2004).

Ensee’s speech was not well received as he returned to the airwaves 10 days later with an elaborate apology to the Esteemed Ladies for his hubris. The pushback must have been severe to require such verbal groveling:

I did not intend to teach you about the beauty of hats because with these things, you must already know better than me what is beautiful. You are a woman. . . . I leave that to be your responsibility to consider and decide or find out from women circles. The Department of Public Welfare did not intend to regulate the occasion in which you should wear hats . . . Who will dare nitpick and bother you, making this rule and that rule? (paragraph 2)

Despite the deferential tone, Ensee nevertheless demanded that the Esteemed Ladies enforce dress code compliance among themselves. Not only that, the patriotic uniform, hat and all, was presented in this speech as fashionable and a standard of beauty in the context of nation building. Phibunsongkhram had earlier hinted at the idea of patriotism as beauty in the Second Plea when he added hats to the patriotic uniform: “I speak of the wearing of hats as your duty in Nation Building, so that Thai women will shine more brightly” (paragraph 11).

Patriotism as part of women’s beauty regimen was further promoted by the various clothing pageants held throughout the country. The regime also reimagined the Miss Siam pageant as the Miss Thailand pageant, in which elite young women competed to be the feminine and fashionable ideals of a new nation. The reigning Miss Thailand (1941), Sawangchit Kharuehanon, and the first ever Miss Thailand (1940), Mariam (Riam) Phesayanawin, regularly graced magazine covers and made public appearances, fulfilling their role as patriotic tastemakers. Fashion intermediaries reported on their public appearances and other stylishly patriotic society events within the pages of popular magazines such as Tai Mai and Chiwit Thai, helping to usher nationalism deep into the world of fashion. Even newspapers that were once deemed radical, such as Srikrung (Glorious City), became fashion intermediaries for the patriotic dress code. The cover of the March 23, 1941 issue shows a picture of Thais dressed in compliance with Mandate 10 (Fig. 4). The caption reads, “National progress rests on culture; thus, the mode of dress is important. We, the people, must comply with the Prime Minister’s plea for the sake of national progress and our own self-improvement.”


Fig. 4 The Cover of Srikrung Newspaper Promoting the Dress Code Prescribed by Mandate 10 (March 23, 1941)


The August 13, 1941 issue of Chiwit Thai magazine prominently featured a human-interest piece about a charity flea market held at Amphon Park on August 3.19) In the article the Publicity Department, one of the co-sponsors of the event, described it as “one of the biggest hat-wearing events for all to witness.” The all-day event featured a group demonstration of the daily radio broadcast morning exercises at 6 a.m. and a clothing and hat pageant competition shortly after 8 a.m. The first prize winner of the junior category, Somprasoet Suphrangkun, received one of La-iad Phibunsongkhram’s 24-karat gold bracelets.

Patriotism, as a stowaway in fashion, slipped into all areas of women’s private lives, abetted by the work of fashion tastemakers and intermediaries. Mandate 5 had dictated earlier that

Thais should try to consume only food prepared from products which originate or are produced in Thailand; try to dress with materials which originate or are produced in Thailand; should help to support indigenous agricultural, commercial, and industrial occupations and professions. (Thak et al. 1978, 248)

The Thai fashion industry in 1941, which was nascent at best, was not ready for the new patriotic dress code. As a result, the Thai Sisters had to rely on foreign-made items to comply with Mandate 10.

The regime, realizing its mistake, scrambled to organize a series of millinery workshops for women, transmogrifying the acquisition of basic vocational skills into a patriotic duty and blurring the lines between fashion consumers and producers. Between September 8 and November 27, the Department of Public Welfare and the Office of Consumer Welfare co-hosted a series of millinery workshops for women at the National Commercial Building. Sa-nga (formerly Amelia) Sukhabut, a Westerner married into the prestigious Sukhabut law family, instructed the attendees with the help of an interpreter (Fig. 5). Being a stylish Western woman herself, Sa-nga was the perfect candidate to preach the millinery gospel to Thai proselytes. Participants could show off their handiwork immediately at the gala dinners the Department of Public Welfare organized to complement the workshops. Two participants even modeled their self-made hats on the cover of the October 20 issue of Tai Mai. Amon, the sole female signatory of the Thai Sisters text, may have been one of the attendees, as she later opened an eponymous hat boutique named Ran Amon on Ratchadamnoen Road.


Fig. 5 Millinery Workshop Hosted by the Department of Public Welfare (Tai Mai, September 15, 1941)


Eventually, anyone in any trade could participate in fashionable patriotism. Newly founded schools filled the advertisement pages with hat- and Western clothes-making classes. Tailors and seamstresses clambered to attract buyers for their “Thai-made” fashionable wares. Products otherwise unrelated to clothing injected patriotism into their advertisements to promote their goods as the perfect complement to a fashionably patriotic woman. The advertisement for Chula Brand soap, for example, compared the newly improved bar soap with the newly improved Thai ladies who were dressed “appropriately for our civilized times” (Fig. 6). The regime continued to host the increasingly popular “Thai-made” flea markets at Amphon Park.


Fig. 6 Advertisement for Chula Brand Soap (Tai Mai, January 6, 1941)


This is not to say that all Thai women were compliant and cooperative with the demands of the regime. Samples of print media during this time suggest that some Thai Sisters remained skeptical of the patriotic dress code, though direct evidence of public opposition to Mandate 10 is elusive amidst state-controlled media. The regime had already shut the doors of women’s magazines that mobilized women to fulfill roles beyond mothers and wives, because they were deemed “too political” by the time Mandate 10 was issued (Ubolwan and Uaypon 1989, 25). Careful examination, however, shows that some Thai Sisters continued to ignore the bombardment of propaganda urging compliance with the dress code. In the July 9, 1941 issue of Chiwit Thai, a photo spread hints at an atmosphere of opposition against hats (Fig. 7). The photos show women who attended a tea dance held at Amphon Park on July 5. One caption states that only hat-wearing women were allowed entry into the event (top right), while another caption reads “Hat-wearing ladies. See, it’s not as unsightly as you thought! We think it’s the opposite, based on the charm exuding from their faces” (bottom left).


Fig. 7 A Photo Spread in Chiwit Thai That Hints at Women’s Resistance to Wearing Hats (July 9, 1941)


By the October 8, 1941 issue, even a magazine like Chiwit Thai, which unabashedly supported the regime, was weary of publishing pro-hat messages. The magazine regularly ran a section named “The Ladies” (khun ying) that offered tips on how women could keep up with the latest fashion in the constitutional age. Here, women could find the latest recipes, hairstyles, clothing and shoe designs, and tips on how to manage their household, all important aspects of the newly constructed modern Thai woman. The October 8 edition of “The Ladies” on page 34 reads, “Hats for ‘The Ladies’ is a never-ending conversation. Over and over, it happens. So we are showing two more types [of hats] in this issue” (Fig. 8).


Fig. 8 The October 8, 1941 Edition of “The Ladies” (Chiwit Thai Magazine)


One can also read between the lines of the numerous Thai Sisters texts that, overall, the Ladies Everywhere, esteemed or otherwise, continued to be ambivalent or altogether noncompliant despite the great efforts to propagandize them into submission. It remains unclear how the regime was able to effectively enforce Mandate 10, beyond the stern measures of the seemingly desperate parliamentary resolution of September 1941. It is also unknown what legal consequences, besides denial of service, the Thai Sisters faced if they did not comply. Had the regime not struggled with public compliance, there would be no need for the resolution or the onslaught of propaganda.

Patriotism and nationalism had become a part of the Thai Sisters’ daily life and fashion routine, thanks in part to the work of fashion intermediaries as defined by Blaszczyk (2009). By the time Thailand entered World War II the following year, the media and regime had turned their attention away from the patriotic dress code. Compliance with Mandate 10 had either largely been met, or the regime refocused its propagandic energy toward grooming the citizens for war. There is not yet any definitive proof that the regime designed the Cultural Mandates to accelerate the development of the Thai fashion industry, though it must have claimed responsibility for the production and economic boom that came as a result. Rightly so: without Mandate 10, there would have been no need for businesses to meet the demands of women needing to style newly long hair, wear Western-style clothes and shoes, and exercise daily.

IV Conclusion

Embodying modernity and nationality was a self-improvement task for fin de siècle Siamese monarchs. In that process, their bodies along with their visual representations were iconized as sites for the modernization of Siam (Peleggi 2002; 2007). The lack of a kingly body resulting from the abdication of Rama VII and the physical absence of his successor, the child-king Rama VIII, made modernity and nation building necessarily a civilian task when Phibunsongkhram came into power in 1938. With the issuance of Mandate 10 and the supplemental texts examined in the above sections, the regime relocated the physical locus of modernization and nation building onto the bodies of women, effectively abandoning royal bodies. The Thai Sisters were, thus, conscripted to be corporeal proxies for the nation in place of the monarchs, and their bodies were transformed into public sites for the performance of patriotic propaganda.

Nation building, however, occurred also at a private and individual level. For the sake of the nation, citizens were asked to submit to the patriotic appropriation of their private lives so that the nation became internalized and naturalized within themselves (Tansman 2009). This sense of private nationalism was promoted in the supplemental texts, wherein the regime linked women’s nation-building tasks to those of a mother. By framing nation building as analogous to the biological and emotional experiences of a mother, the regime sought to place patriotism into the private lives of Thai women. Repeated lexical parallels in the supplemental texts further equated nation building (saang chaat) with self-improvement (saang ton eeng), so that in order to modernize the nation the Thai Sisters had to first modernize their bodies.

Such vestimentary nation building turned popular magazines such as Tai Mai and Chiwit Thai into patriotic battlegrounds for those whom Blaszczyk (2009) calls fashion intermediaries and tastemakers. In the realm of fashion, enforcement could come in the form of photo spreads and beauty pageants. Any Thai Sister could now be a gatekeeper and arbiter of patriotism in her own home and social circle. Nation building and modernization by way of self-improvement were literally sewn into clothes, learned as vocations, modeled on beauty queens, and advertised in magazines.

Mandate 10 and its supplemental texts to the Thai Sisters demanded that the feminine body physically bear the burden of nation building. The creation of a detailed patriotic dress code for women relocated nation building away from the male bodies of monarchs and onto the bodies of Thai women. And by weaving nation building into women’s private lives, the Phibunsongkhram regime made the (self-)policing of women’s bodies—formerly restricted to elite women—not only essential but also fashionable and patriotic for all Thai Sisters.

Accepted: February 19, 2019


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1) In Thai, “ประมวลรัฐนิยมและระเบียบวัฒนธรรมแห่งชาติ” (pramuan ratthaniyom lae rabiap watthanatham haeng chat).

2) Notable exceptions are works in Thai, namely, Piyawan Asawarachan’s “The Leadership’s Perception towards Thai Women during World War II under the Influence of the Japanese Military Regime” (2012) and two unpublished graduate theses, “Women Policies during the Nation Building Period of Field Marshall Phibunsongkhram, 1939–1945” by Nanthira Khamphiban (1987) and “Society’s Expectations of Thai Women in the ‘Nation Building’ Period, 1938–1944” by Suksun Dangpakdee (1994).

3) The interwar years are defined as the period between the end of the Great War in 1918 and the beginning of World War II in 1939. The interwar years were characterized by: (1) political, social, and emotional reactions to and recovery from the Great War; (2) the economic prosperity of the 1920s; and (3) the Great Depression.

4) Some military nationalist regimes that were in power during the interwar years were: Mussolini in Italy, Stalin in Russian, Franco in Spain, Hitler in Germany, Ataturk in Turkey, Chiang Kai-shek in China, and Hirohito in Japan.

5) Siamese and Thai Kings of House Chakri are commonly referred to by their chronological order of reign. The first Chakri King, King Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok, is thus Rama I, King Vajiravudh is Rama VI, and the current king of Thailand, King Vajiralongkorn, is Rama X.

6) Phanung (lit. “cloth for wearing”) is a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the lower body, the ends of which can be folded or rolled together in the front and then tucked between the legs to fashion it into a pantaloon called chong kraben. Every Siamese wore this piece of clothing, regardless of age, status, and gender.

7) The Thai name for the Cultural Mandates is Ratthaniyom, which translates to “state or national values.” This study follows the common practice of using “Cultural Mandates” to refer to the 12 mandates issued by the Phibunsongkhram regime between 1939 and 1942.

8) This is not to say that men were not subjected to the demands of Mandate 10 and its many subsequent expansions. Men also had newly prescribed modes of dress, and an exploration of the recruitment of men to nation building via fashion is a worthwhile future endeavor.

9) In Thai: คำวิงวอนของท่านนายกรัฐมตรี (ฝากไว้แก่พี่น้องสตรีไทย) Kham wingwon khong thaan nayok ratthamontrii (faak wai kae phii nong satrii thai)

10) Mandate 1 was issued on June 24, 1939 and states, “The name of the country is to be ‘Thailand’” (Thak et al. 1978, 245). Prior to the Cultural Mandates, the kingdom was officially called Siam.

11) The Phibunsongkhram regime borrowed heavily from contemporary nationalist military governments, specifically fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and early Shōwa Japan. The extent and details of their influence are beyond the scope of this paper.

12) Title in Thai, คำวิงวอนของท่านนายกรัฐมนตรี แด่พี่น้องสตรีไทย เรื่อง การสวมหมวก (kham wingwon khong than nai yok ratthamontri dae phinong satri thai rueng kansuammuak).

13) The Phibunsongkhram regime was not at all original in its attempts to equate motherhood with nation building. Similar policies of contemporary nationalist regimes predate those in Thailand. Even then, the policies of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and early Shōwa Japan were merely twentieth-century reiterations of common ideologies of past empires.

14) A decade earlier, in 1933, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany both declared a national holiday, Giornata della Madre e dell’Infanzia and Muttertag respectively, in celebration of mothers and motherhood as part of their nation-building campaign.

15) The October 1943 issue of Wannakhadisan (Literary Magazine) was published in honor of La-iad’s birthday and, through prose and poetry, praised her as the ideal wife and mother. Phibunsongkhram wrote the introduction and dedication.

16) For a detailed discussion of the nation-building narrative surrounding the Franco-Thai War of 1940–41, see Shane Strate’s The Lost Territories: Thailand’s History of National Humiliation (2015). For an examination of the role of bodily health in Thai nation building, see Kongsakon Kawinraweekun’s “Constructing the Body of Thai Citizens during the Phibun Regime of 1938–1944” (2002) and Davisakd Puaksom’s “Of Germs, Public Hygiene, and the Healthy Body: The Making of the Medicalizing State in Thailand” (2007).

17) Issued on September 8, 1941, Mandate 11 states: “. . . the proper carrying out of daily activities is an important factor for the maintenance and promotion of national culture and hence the vigorous health of Thai citizens and their support for the country . . .” (Thak et al. 1978, 253). The mandate divides the day into three discrete eight-hour parts: work, sleep, and leisurely activities done for the sake of self-improvement (ibid.).

18) Title in Thai, ปาฐกถา เรื่อง การใช้หมวกสำหรับสตรีไทย (pathakatha rueng kan chai muak samrap satri thai).

19) Proceeds of the event went to the building of Phra Srimahathat Woramahawihan Temple. Phibunsongkhram proposed the building of a Democracy Temple (Wat Prachathippatai) near the site of the Fifth Constitution Monument, or Protected Constitution Monument (Anusaowaree Phithakrattathamanoon) in Thai, which was erected to celebrate the quelling of the Boraworadet Rebellion. The purposes of the temple were to: (1) celebrate National Day in 1941, (2) honor Buddhism as the national religion and the Buddhist principles guiding democracy, and (3) celebrate the change of political system from absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy (see Dhammathai website).


Vol. 5, No. 1, NARUEMON

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 1

Contending Political Networks: A Study of the “Yellow Shirts” and “Red Shirts” in Thailand’s Politics

Naruemon Thabchumpon*

* นฤมล ทับจุมพล, Department of Government, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, 254 Henri Dunant Road, Pratumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand

e-mail: naruemon.t[at]

This essay investigates two bitter antagonists in the turbulent politics of contemporary Thailand: the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), with its members labeled the “Yellow Shirts,” and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or the “Red Shirts.” Each of the two foes, typically regarded only as a social movement, actually has a vast network connecting supporters from many quarters. The Yellow Shirt network is associated with the monarchy, military, judiciary, and bureaucracy. The Red Shirt network, organizationally manifest in a series of electorally triumphant parties, is linked to exiled ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his “proxies,” and groups and individuals who opposed the military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006. The significance of the two antagonistic networks can be gauged from their different influences on democratic processes over several years. Using concepts of political networks to examine the PAD and UDD within the socio-political context in which they arose, the essay focuses on several aspects of the networks: their political conception and perspectives, their organizational structures (for decision making and networking), and the strategies and activities of their members. The essay critically analyzes key and affiliated characters within the PAD and UDD, as well as the functional mechanisms of the networks, in order to evaluate the positions of the two networks in contemporary Thai politics.

Keywords: Thailand, contending networks, People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), Thaksin Shinawatra

In recent years, the explanation for Thailand’s democratization has been subject to intense debate. The binary opposition between the “urban elites and middle class people,” on the one hand, and the “rural majority” on the other has led the country’s democratic transformation into a situation of what I consider a polarization of two influential networks: the network of anti-Thaksin protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006 and 2008, and the network of pro-Thaksin demonstrations led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) in 2009 and 2010. The past 10 years is viewed as a time of contentious politics, the politics of contested political networks.

This paper is an attempt to investigate two contesting political networks in Thailand’s politics, namely, the PAD and UDD. Using primary data and interviews with PAD and UDD members in 2009, 2010, and 2014, this paper explores the politics of contestation of the two political networks.1) While the first network is associated with the monarchy, the military, and the bureaucracy, the second network was led by former Prime Minister Thaksin and a series of his sequential political parties2) as well as individuals who disagreed with the 2006 military coup. The significance of these two networks can be seen from their politically influential roles in the Thai democratic process in the last five years.

To understand these two networks, the paper will provide a brief background on Thai politics and its contextual conditions with regard to political networks. Second, it will examine both networks in three categories: political conception and perspectives; organizational structure, which includes key decision makers and networking; strategies and activities of network’s members. Third, the paper will critically analyze specific characteristics of both networks, their key persons and affiliated members, as well as their functional mechanisms. Finally, the paper will offer a political interpretation of both networks with regard to their positioning in Thai politics.

I Thailand’s Politics from a Network Point of View

Following the re-election of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra3) in 2005, Thailand has been caught up in a political contestation between two power networks: the PAD and UDD. This section provides a brief background of Thai politics and its contextual conditions with respect to the country’s contemporary politics. It will discuss the dynamism of political and economic governances that have an impact on the politics of networking in Thailand.

The Thai political system operates within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, whereby the prime minister is the head of the government and a hereditary monarch is head of state. The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative branches. The country has a political history of long periods of authoritarianism alternating with periods of “semi-democratic” government. Since the installation of the first representative government in 1932, the military has interrupted the constitutional order more than 18 times, with Thai citizens witnessing more than 20 changes of government and 18 written constitutions after the abolition of absolute monarchy. In May 2014 there was a coup to remove Yingluck Shinawatra, the first female prime minister and youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the September 2006 military coup by a group known as the Council of Democratic Reform.4)

After the September 19, 2006 military coup that removed Thaksin from office, the monarchy-centered network played a dominant role until December 2007, when the People Power Party—a successor of the Thai Ruk Thai party, which was dissolved due to a vote-buying scandal—won the first post-coup election. During most of 2008,5) a pro-Thaksin government held office under protracted protests by the PAD. It was judicially ousted in December of that year, when a backroom political deal made Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva prime minister without the benefit of an election.6) Thaksin supporters regarded Abhisit’s premiership as illegitimate and repeatedly pressed him to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.

According to D. McCargo (2006), there are two modes of legitimacy—electoral and technocratic—that any government that wants to survive in Thai politics has to contend with. The former concerns forming the government: political parties, in order to gain the highest number of seats in the election, targeted mainly rural areas, which were notorious for the practice of vote buying. The latter comes from a party’s technocratic expertise in the eyes of the urban middle classes. Both types of legitimacy are closely connected with the project of making the politics of representation work and making the country’s political system more accountable, transparent, and stable.

In the Thai case, however, it can be argued that many political crises have demonstrated the persistent characteristics of Thai politics: a strong military, weak political parties, personalized leadership, a lack of “democratic consciousness” on the part of civil society and the general public, and an important role for rumors and opinions put out by the press. Another unmentionable factor in Thailand’s politics is the political influence of the monarchy, created largely since the 1958 coup (Naruemon 2012, 8).

The interventionist role of the monarchy-centered network in the Thai political process and political institutions, especially in electoral politics, has been apparent from time to time and has been clearly seen in the last 10 years. The King is often seen as an important actor for political change and stability in Thailand’s politics. While McCargo considers the interventionist role of members of the Privy Council as a proxy network of the monarch, A. Bamford and C. Chanyapate (2006) argue that the action or inaction of the palace was largely seen as a political signal from the monarch to politicians. The problematic and contested nature of democracy in Thailand is abundantly illustrated by the military coup d’état of September 19, 2006, a further example that the rules of the Thai political game remain fluid and that elites still see themselves as having the right to override popular participation for their own ends.

In terms of the political context of both networks, the UDD was formed partly in response to the anti-Thaksin movement known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Royalist PAD members, donning their trademark yellow shirts, staged anti-Thaksin demonstrations in the early months of 2006, after which they accepted the 2007 election results and disbanded their network. The PAD renewed its protests in 2008, when the pro-Thaksin government attempted to bring back the prime minister. The 2008 protests involved occupying Government House in August and closing down Bangkok’s airports in late November and early December. The political conflicts and arguments between the PAD and UDD networks may be viewed as a form of tension between elitist and electoral models of democracy as well as representing two power networks: professionals/technocrats and majoritarian networks.

On the one side, for example, the UDD, representing an electoral majoritarian power network, supported liberal reform advocates who considered democracy as a legalistic and formal process of political institutions (such as political parties, elections, and legislative capacity). On the other side, the PAD, representing an elitist model of professionals and a technocratic power network, favored those who argued that elections were meaningless unless people were aware of the real choices and the meaning of those choices, as well as having full information on policies that would affect them. Both networks argued for the principles of democracy, whether it was seen as government by elected representatives acting in the name of the people or government by the people themselves.

The differences between both networks in relation to the interpretation of Thai democratic politics have created a polarization among civil society groups. This is evident in various arguments, political discourses, and clarifications over the meaning of democratic legitimacy. For example, the established middle classes and urban-based civic groups, which are PAD’s supporters, argue that the priority of the country is to repair the damage done by political corruption and money politics. In comparison, networks of UDD supporters feel that their voices were not considered in formulating state policy up until the 2001 election and decentralization scheme. Even if they acknowledged corruption issues surrounding Thaksin’s premiership, the UDD considered Thaksin’s time in office as a unique period during which the Bangkok government was genuinely responsive to rural people’s needs and concerns. The UDD’s preferential treatment can be seen as a political project in the government’s economic plan and fiscal policy of boosting consumption and hence the domestic economy. Due to different interpretations and preferences between the two networks, UDD supporters have been anti-PAD since the 2006 coup, when they accused the PAD of supporting the coup. From then on, clashes between supporters of the two groups have taken place from time to time and there has not yet been a reconciliation.

II Understanding the PAD and Its Political Networks

The PAD is a well-organized network, with its own powerful media arrangement—the Manager-ASTV—emerging in Thai politics. Semi-structured interviews with PAD network members involved in the 2008 six-month protests, including members from the Friends of People Group, Federation of State Enterprise Worker Unions (SEWU), Indebted Farmers Network, Northern Farmer Federation, Thai Patriot Network, Council of People’s Networks in Thailand, Health Professional Network, Business Society for Democracy, Santi-Asoke Group, and Alliance for Democratic Artists and ASTV media team,7) yielded the following findings.

According to interviews (2009), this network uses a vertical and unified organizational style rather than a horizontal style, with a certain degree of autonomy on political activities. Under the discourse of destroying the Thaksin regime and protecting national institutions, the PAD uses provocative strategies with strong elements of ultra-royalist nationalism. The controversial role of the PAD has generated unsettling discussions on urban politics and the negative role of the middle classes in damaging Thai democracy. With the group being an elitist movement that has not benefited from electoral mass politics, its core members conceive and practice extra-parliamentary politics that go beyond interest group politics. The group’s campaigns range from the rehabilitation of indebted farmers to the ousting of the elected prime minister, before going on to the proposal of creating a moral economy with a soft authoritarian style.8)

The PAD is a political network comprising elite-urban civic groups in alliance with the military, bureaucracy, middle-class activists, communitarian NGO workers and small-scale farmers, conservative academics, and business entrepreneurs as well as some members of the royal family. The PAD’s political activities can be categorized as diffuse issue-based politics. In the PAD context,9) resistance takes place within a common framework of action against a common enemy, meaning an anti-Thaksin movement, rather than in accordance with one particular class or geographical identification.

In terms of the collective action of the networks under the PAD, this network redefined and overruled the principles of democracy with its discourse of good governance, anti-corruption, and clean politics to enable the struggles of oppositional groups and street politics to be reframed as a civic activity for direct participation that might take the place of—and be incompatible with—representative democracy.

II-1 Composition and Key Characteristics of the PAD

According to interviews with two PAD members (2009), the PAD consists of a political network with a wide variety of professional organizations (such as teachers, medical doctors, lawyers, and government officers), state enterprise unions, fundamental religious organizations (meaning the Santi-Asoke Buddhism and its Dharma Army group), communitarian NGOs, networks of small-scale farmer organizations, and urban middle-class individuals. Key active members of the PAD are from the Asoke Group, Manager-ASTV Media Group, Northern Farmer Federation, Alliance of Democratic Artists, Council Network of People’s Organization, Young PAD, and Campaign for Popular Democracy. Members of these organizational networks are key players of the PAD. During the demonstrations, for example, Second Lieutenant Samdin Lerbutr, the president of the Santi-Asoke Commune, was in charge of food and security for the PAD; and Yuthayong Limlert-watee, from the Manager-ASTV, was the stage manager of the PAD program. Although the PAD is neither a membership-based organization nor an interest group that is concerned only with the benefit of its members, several network members join the PAD because their organizational interests are affected by government policies. For example, the issue of privatization of state enterprise was the rallying issue for state enterprise unions to support the PAD, while primary school teachers supported it because they were dissatisfied over the downsizing and transferring of power and authority over public schools from the central government to local school sub-districts with limited staff under the Thaksin government in 2005. Key players in the PAD include Major General Chamlong Srimuang from the Asoke group and Sonti Limthongkul from the Manager-ASTV Media. It can be argued that both of them have influenced the PAD’s arguments on nationalism, communitarianism, and clean politics.

In terms of individual members of the PAD, the key players are those from the royal family and retired or existing military personnel. Members of the royal family or blue blood jet set who support the PAD are grouped under the network called the Truth and Transparency Society (TTS). The TTS’s members include Anong Nilubon, MR Rampi-arpa Kasemsri, Tuangtip Veera-vaitaya, Prapai Prasartthong-osod, Benjawan Krajangnetra, and royal family members of Diskul na Ayuthaya.10) These people did not only join the 183-day PAD demonstrations but also financially supported the PAD campaigns. Although the existing military personnel are difficult to identify, the retired military persons can be seen from members of the U-na-lome Society, whose chairperson is General Pratompong Kaesornsuk. Other key players in the PAD are Seangtham Chunchadatan, a youth leader, and Tul Sithisomwong, a medical doctor at the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital. Seangtham is a member of Young PAD who helped organize the PAD Demonstration School (Sathid Makawan) during the PAD’s encampment at Makawan Bridge.11) He can be seen as a node of the network in the sense that he created a new network called Young PAD, with a Web site and cyber-technology for the release of information, network communication, and mobilization. Tul Sithisomwong is seen as another node in the Network of Citizen Volunteers Protecting the Land (or the Multicolor Shirt movement) since he has organized and led various activities, including the Facebook Movement and a protest rally against Thaksin’s corruption scandals.

The 2010 Facebook Movement, which started through Internet communications (such as sharing pictures, clips, and other documents through online networks) moved on to organize a counter demonstration against the 2010 UDD protest demanding a dissolving of parliament. In this particular case, Tul Sithisomwong, a medical doctor who joined the PAD demonstration before the 2006 coup, can be seen as another node in the cyber network by posting information, before transforming into the hub of another network by being a leader of the Multicolor Shirt network against the UDD demonstration and dissolution of parliament in 2010. Although most members of the Facebook network are not PAD supporters, they are mobilized by cyber information and communication that encourages them to join the Multicolor Shirt network.

II-2 Political Conception of the PAD

In the case of the PAD, many intellectual advisers of the network were influenced by ultranationalism and conservatism. Resulting from their experience with vertical lines of command, these leaders turned to the idea of aristocratic democracy and vertical lines of networking at the expense of the internal democracy of the network.

Under “discursive struggles,” the PAD’s arguments are divided into three debates: nationalism against neoliberalism, communitarianism against populism, and clean politics against money politics. Moralist political discourses were used as the network’s motto to support its positioning in Thai politics. As there is no equality of power among civil society members under the umbrella of the network, those who have access to power perceive political strategies and politics in a different way from those who do not have bargaining power. For instance, many voluntary civil society groups were subsumed under the PAD category; they included conservative factions, which had royal family members and retired government officers, as well as more progressive factions, such as the Northern Peasants Federation and the Federation of State Enterprise Worker Unions (SEWU). Their overall struggle was conducted by violent and nonviolent resistance groups. Given the unequal power structure in the case of the PAD, some elitist civil society organizations can be accessories of the state and promote a state-led view of civil society as well as promoting conservative institutional networks, such as the monarchy and military. While the “network monarchy” suggested by McCargo (2005) looks at active interventions in the political process by the palace and its proxies, notably former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond—who acted on behalf of the palace to restore political equilibrium in Thailand’s power relations with certain elements of liberalism—the PAD and its Yellow Shirt network, in contrast, is seen as a network of middle- to upper-class residents who stand for honest politics with a moralistic political discourse and some elements of patriarchy and nationalism. Members of the PAD network will always uphold the constitutional monarchy and oppose those they view as wanting to change the monarchy’s status.

In terms of the middle class, moreover, it has been argued that most political observers took it for granted since the May 1992 events were viewed as a democratic uprising of the middle classes. Due to the inconsistent role of the middle class in 1976, 1991, and 2006, it can be contended that this class might have played a role in the democratic uprising; but it was not in the forefront when the fighting erupted. Most of those killed and injured during the uprising belonged to the lower classes, and, as Nithi Eawsriwong (2002) comments, the middle class does not necessary believe in either democracy or equality. As K. Hewison (1997, 214) argues, “[T]he inconsistent role of the Thai middle class during 1991 and 1992 should be considered as an unpredictable political factor which was not necessarily animated by liberal democratic values.”

The PAD comprises groups representing different sectors and classes, whose alliance is issue-based. Due to its lack of access to electoral and institutional politics, this group prefers to adopt a group-based or occupation-based model of representation, rather than a geographical model of representative politics and periodic elections. It also uses the politics of direct action without engaging in formal processes and institutional channels for political participation.

Reflecting the power relations among network groupings under the PAD, it can be argued that the strongest voices among organizations claiming to be representative of the network have been those of educated middle-class urban residents and white-collar career workers, whilst the poor have become a minority segment or a prop of the political scenery under the PAD discourse. The combined presence but unequal roles of these different classes and social groups demonstrate the wide range of views that appeared in the active citizen participation in Thai politics.

To elaborate on the contested perceptions of various networks under the PAD, a mapping of a wide variety of political and economic positions can be seen through the matrix in Fig. 1. The matrix shows the wide range of political opinions of PAD members, from middle-class activists, professional groups, academic societies, and the media to the community and some sectors of the indebted farmer network. The composition of the PAD network is drawn from different sectors and is cross-class in affiliation and issue-based in orientation rather than being an ideological standpoint or territorial grouping. The common theme that links all members of the PAD is clean politics with a moral order. According to an interview with a PAD member, “Democracy without moral principles cannot fulfill Thailand’s political society, and the monarchy is required for peace, prosperity, and stability of the country.”



Fig. 1 Mapping of the Position of the PAD in Thai Civil Society

Note: ADA: Alliance for Democratic Artists; BSD: Business Society for Democracy; CNPO: Council Network of People Organization; FOP: Friends of People; Health: Health Professional Network; LCM Partner: Local Community’s Member; LST: Law Society of Thailand; NCF: Network of ­Community’s Farmers; NFF: Northern Farmer Federation; NIF: Indebted Farmers Network (Sometime they call themselves Network of Indebted Farmers); RDST: Rural Development in the Southern Network of Thailand; SERG: State Enterprise Railway Group (a core member of the Federation of State Enterprise Worker Unions); SVN: Social Venture Network; TMGP: Thai Media Group for People; TTS: Truth and Transparency Society.


II-3 Organization and Functional Structure of the PAD

At the organizational level, the PAD is composed of autonomous networks of mostly elite urban, upper middle class, and other professional groups as well as individual members. As shown in Fig. 1, PAD network members share the idea of expanding the existing democratic system to solve the problems of money politics but may have different views on the strategies and activities of each network and their view of political practices. The PAD’s leadership structure consists of five leaders, with another seven as second-in-command who represent the network if the five leaders are arrested. The PAD’s adoption of a vertical organizational structure was intended to increase unity and efficiency, which held the risk of building the concentration of power in the hands of leaders (as happened in the case of the 183-day demonstration). The consequent problem, however, was to achieve a balance between democratic legitimacy and organizational effectiveness. The vertical structure of the PAD has been criticized as being undemocratic, detracting from the internal democracy of the organization. The PAD network’s vertical structure can be seen in Fig. 2.



Fig. 2 Organization Chart of the PAD

Note: The PAD’s organization chart clearly shows it as an organization rather than a network, due to its militia character during the protests. However, each section has its own diagram network similar to the UDD’s, but the central command is still under five leaders who supervise all agendas (personal interview, November 18, 2009).


II-4 Political Strategies and Activities of the PAD

In the case of the PAD’s strategy, its agenda ranges from community work and self-help organizations to the politics of good governance and the building of a moralistic political society. The PAD highlights the notion of transparency and accountability of politicians and the participation of educated and well-informed citizens, in the belief that this will help Thailand survive its political crises. The “good governance” terminology, however, should be seen as a product of the Thai elites’ desire to appear to be conforming to international standards while neglecting the problems of the poor.

At the strategy level, the PAD adopts a dual strategy: confrontation and negotiation in all aspects. This network uses the ideology of nationalism and ultra-royalist sentiment in order to attract more members from among the elites. Its campaign strategy stands on an issue-based platform emphasizing anti-Thaksin anti-money politics in order to get support from the middle class and the media. The PAD argues that its version of democracy is linked with the politics of moral polity and a neo-authoritarian developmental state.12) Members of the PAD were grouped together as jointly fighting for “new politics.” This anti-Thaksin strategy brought together those who were frustrated over existing money politics. Members thus shared the same perspective and were committed to the struggle because of a mutual understanding that derived from their own direct experiences. This sense of solidarity enabled them to continue their struggle in the longer term. According to several interviews with PAD supporters who participated in the 2008 and 2009 demonstrations, perceptions of the power relationship between themselves and other people changed markedly when they became organized. By adopting mass mobilization as its prime source of social sanction, the PAD empowered its members and enabled them to make demands of their local officials, as they had done in the past.

At the level of its activities more generally, according to Uchane Cheangsan (2013, 10–14), the PAD uses the politics of protest and civil disobedience—with its network members advancing their agendas through collective action in order to draw attention to the deficiencies of the state system—to pressure the government and become involved in the public policy process. It engages in provocative activities and disruptive actions to draw the attention of the media and hence return to the negotiating table with increased bargaining power.

Regarding the politics of NGOs associated with the PAD, there has been intense debate about the former’s political role in the democratization process and their democratic values (Callahan 1998, 84–129). Thai NGOs have tried to increase people’s participation in the policy process by linking their advocacy with community groups and people’s organizations. Ironically, the Campaign for Popular Democracy, established by a coalition of NGOs, student activists, academics, and other professional associations during the political crisis of 1991–92, became a core member of the PAD; and its network organizations played a contradictory role against democratic values in many ways.

The PAD’s perceptions of democracy can be identified through its argument on “new politics” that aims at a trade-off between procedural democracy and institutional stability under the limitations of representative politics. The quality of the country’s democracy, moreover, remains dependent upon the government and its professional advisers, and the reform itself is deeply compromised by institutional deficits. Institutional arrangements and representative mechanisms are unable to take hold. Thus, the guaranteeing of popular rights and participation has turned out to be beset by complicated procedures that reduce the democratic space and direct participation by the people.

There is an incompatibility between the way the PAD practices participatory politics and the way the country’s government practices democracy. The perception of the urban middle class toward the problems of the poor is also undemocratic. People from elite groups, such as the media, academic, and urban middle classes, have a relatively powerful position from which they can challenge government policy. The poor, however, do not have the power to bargain with the government. Hence, in order for their voices to be heard, the latter have to cooperate with—and even rely on—the middle classes.

III Understanding the UDD and Its Political Networks

The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or the Red Shirts, was set up as an anti-PAD organization after the 2006 coup, when it accused the PAD of supporting the coup. In the beginning the UDD was seen as a small-scale organization with strength in only a handful of provinces, without the capacity to initiate any large and sustained demonstrations. The UDD network faced a harsh military crackdown before re-emerging in the wake of a controversial February 2010 court decision confiscating the bulk of Thaksin’s assets.

On the basis of primary data and interviews with UDD members in 2010, this paper views the UDD network as a set of loose and autonomous rural networks of small-scale organizations with a new style of media channel, namely, community radio and satellite/Internet-based television.13) In terms of organizational structure, its horizontal, loosely organized, and provincial autonomous organizational style of networking has generated discussions on the issues of rural politics and the political role of rural and peripheral people’s networks in Thai democracy. To a large extent, the UDD can be seen as a pro-Thaksin movement. Although some segments in the UDD, such as the network of social and radical activists (namely, the Red Siam group), have an opinion different from the pro-Thaksin movement, they are in the minority.

One way to explain the UDD network is to adopt the concept of oppositional consciousness (Mansbridge 2001, 238) to understand how “the network is created, organised and functioned under a diversity of groups and opinions on organisational strategies and modes of action.” Another way is to understand the dynamism of mass politics in the context of Thailand’s democratization process, especially after the 1997 constitution.

On the first account, as J. Mansbridge (ibid., 243) comments, the motivation for collective action by a group requires more than just recognizing injustice, understanding a common interest, or identifying the limitations of the existing system; it also involves a commitment to act in order to defend or help support such ideas. In other words, it implies a move from recognizing the need for collective action to a willingness to undertake such action.

In the case of the UDD, this network redefined the conception of social justice to show how electoral participation was intertwined with political conditions and public policy. It argued that the economic populist scheme provided by politicians benefited the rural poor, especially those belonging to the non-farming sector. In other words, the economic populist platform could be seen as a legitimate way to gain votes through governmental projects using public funds, which is the power of the poor to have a say in public policy decisions. The UDD network was first categorized as a countermovement against the military, the Democrat government, and the PAD. The network has undertaken various forms of resistance. One of its mottos is “anti-aristocrat,” in accordance with media technology and geographic networking.

On the second account, the political constraints in Thailand were due to deficiencies in the country’s democratic institutional mechanisms, due to which poor people were excluded from effective political participation while the central government controlled local resources, ranging from domestic revenue to natural resources, under the discourse of local interest being subordinated to national interest. While the democratic deficit at the national level came mainly from the failure of formal democracy and the closing of space for public participation, the possibility of achieving greater democracy at the local level was limited also because of the inadequate and slow process in transferring decision-making power to the grassroots and the low quality of local democracy. In the case of the UDD, although local democratic institutions cannot function or are unable to exercise democratic power, members of the network at the sub-district level are able to negotiate and gain some benefit for the local community with regard to poverty reduction projects at the local level and natural resource utilization in their area. Throughout the decentralization process in Thailand, there have been more resources available to local governments; but the central government still has the power and authority on issuing political agendas, providing budgets, and allocating personnel. If the local elites want to enrich themselves with these resources from the local governments, they need to have connections with the center.

Under the UDD’s “political educational scheme,” the network was able to expand its support base at the local level. Within one year, from 2008 to 2009, the UDD’s School Project was created and operated at least 400 schools in 35 provinces across the country. The UDD discourse is placed under three campaigns: electoral democratization, local access to economic liberalization, and putting an end to double standards and bringing about social justice. These discourses are used to support the network’s positioning in Thai politics. Members of the UDD network are from a wide variety of groups, both local institutions and individuals. For example, they include local canvassers of politicians, members of Tambon Administrative Organizations,14) leaders of community radio programs, self-employed and semi-skilled workers, subcontracted farmers, and low-ranking security officers. They are able to access policy schemes of the state and have expectations from electoral politics. It can be argued that a key character of the UDD network is social frustration. Its key active members or possible nodes of networking are from emerging economic and social classes, especially self-employed people and those who still have natural resources and are able to access commercial markets.

The UDD has a horizontal structure comprising networks of various forms of organizations and individual members. The network comprises various sub-networks, such as People’s Television Network members, provincial leaders/organizers, and members of opposition parties. Some 1970s activists have also grouped together and work with the UDD as advisers.15)

According to an interview with a UDD member, the organizational structure can be seen as a loose network of local sub-networks that consider themselves as the Red Shirts. Its task is to set up working political educational projects based on provincial networks. The provincial networks may control various local networks in order to represent the UDD’s network at the national level and make tactical decisions, including holding demonstrations or rallies to pursue the network’s campaign. There are varying numbers of group networks at the provincial level: for example, Ubon Ratchathani has 8 local networks of Red Shirts while Chiang Mai has 24. Each local network has its own community radio channel, from 1000 to 3000 MW, to propagate its own music, local folklore, and political issues of the Red Shirts locally and nationally.16)

In practice, however, there are debates within the UDD about the dominant role of national leaders, especially those from the People’s Television Network team and ex-activists, in crafting the organization’s political identity and political strategy as well as its agenda through their involvement with the political school project. For example, according to an interview with a UDD member from Chiang Mai, central leaders decided to continue protracted protests in downtown Bangkok while local sub-networks wanted to call off the demonstrations after the violence in April 2010. The creation of an identity of the UDD’s struggle as a struggle of “peasants vs. aristocrats” also came from intellectuals at the center (see Fig. 3 representing the organizational structure).


Fig. 3 Organizational Structure of UDD Network

Notes: 1) Although the three leaders of the UDD are Vira, Natthawut, and Jatuporn, Thaksin and his close network are seen as playing an advisory role in terms of decision making for rallies and networking. The financial role is seen to be played by Thaksin and his close ally (personal interview, April 10, 2010).

2) CPT: Communist Party of Thailand; PTV: People Television Network.


Most networks are not membership-based organizations and depend upon outside contributors (especially local politicians and political canvassers) for organizing and financing the network. The UDD’s campaign strategies and activities are also seen as political rallies by political society rather than self-governing civil actions by civil society. In the case of the UDD network’s organizations, their agendas range from the nonpolitical and nonideological to the idea of political justice in the belief that this would help bring back democracy and possibly former Prime Minister Thaksin.

In the Thai case, the politics of the UDD consists of a loose network of a wide variety of organizations that are not membership-based or made up of interest groups that are concerned only with the benefit of their members. The composition, however, is such that it contains groups representing different sectors and classes, whose alliance is issue-based under the motto of “anti-aristocrat, anti-double standards, and bring back Thaksin though our ballot box.” The UDD prefers to adopt a group-based representation as well as geographical model of representative politics and periodic elections. It also uses the politics of direct action without engaging in formal processes and institutional channels for political participation.

Under Thaksin, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) used a participatory platform to formulate the marketing of its election campaign in 2001, which has continued to function as a hub of the network for coordination and as a focal point of the UDD. At the time, the TRT organized workshops with farmers’ leaders in every region to focus on rural problems and solutions as a starting platform before asking its academic staff and technocrats to analyze the situation and put forward concrete proposals that would appeal to voters. The UDD did the same thing with different audiences before pushing its campaign using these forums as a channel for its provincial publicity and political marketing campaign.

On the issue of widespread and broad-based participation, key UDD players disagreed with the communitarian philosophy that “the people know best.” They argued for the practicability and effectiveness of the state system that needed to be taken into consideration, and that public participation was only one among several methods of strategic formulation. In this regard, people needed to understand the concept of social obligations as well as social justice and use institutional channels to present their disagreements through voting in the general election. Thaksin himself did not believe that agricultural production was the way out of poverty, and he sought to eradicate poverty by encouraging farmers to become entrepreneurs by getting loans from the government to open small businesses or selling local products with support from the state.

The UDD still considers local interests to be subordinate to the national interest in the cause of infrastructure development and economic recovery, especially when the rhetoric of sovereignty is invoked. As the agenda of the rural-popular group may be different from that of incumbent politicians, these disagreements create further tensions and conflicts among network members. In the end, local networks of the rural and urban poor may fight against their leaders on several issues that affect their livelihoods, since their definition of social justice goes beyond personal politics to issues of redistribution of land, income, and progressive taxation.

On May 22, 2014, Thailand experienced another military coup. Since then, a military junta, going by the name of the National Council for Peace and Order, has governed the country. An oppressive post-coup political milieu has been one of the most influential factors in limiting the political role of the UDD and even fragmenting its network. The overall political situation from 2014 to 2015 reflected the weakening of Thai democracy and the political networks once active in the process of democratization. The UDD network, in particular, has been placed under considerable threat from the junta, which has used coercive means to deter or prohibit political gatherings of the UDD. For example, the military and the police regularly use Article 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution to justify investigations, detentions, or any other curbs on the rights of anyone suspected of participating in activities deemed to threaten the security of the nation. Such repressive actions by the state’s uniformed forces have created a climate of fear that has forced UDD members to lie low, suspend their political activities, or go underground. The junta’s aggressive enforcement of lèse-majesté laws has also caused widespread anxiety and stifled the freedom of expression online, in print, via the broadcast media, and at public events. After the 2014 coup, new lèse-majesté cases have been brought before military courts that deny an accused person the right to formal appeal. Owing to the secrecy surrounding most lèse-majesté cases, it is unclear how many cases actually went to trial in 2014–15. Those cases, however, are believed to number in the hundreds. Already many people, UDD network members among them, have left Thailand to avoid being tried on charges of lèse-majesté. In short, the UDD has been seriously weakened. It is presently unable to revive its former concerns, let alone challenge the junta openly. Unless new, free, and fair elections take place, UDD members and their supporters are unlikely to be able to regroup and reconstitute their once substantial and influential networks. As long as the junta maintains its repression and threats, the future of the UDD network is rather bleak.

IV Conclusion: Network and Social Changes

To understand the networks of the PAD and UDD, we need to look at the structural design of Thailand’s democracy. While some elitists argue that the architecture of Thai political reform needs to address three main structural problems—corruption, inefficiency, and lack of political leadership—others argue for the realization that electoral politics alone cannot defuse conflicts over natural resources, which set the state against the people.

In the case of these two networks, the study demonstrates that both the PAD and the UDD are effectively challenging mainstream conceptions of Thai democracy in a number of ways. At the conceptual level, both networks have contested mainstream views on the link between democracy and participation, thus ensuring that direct participation of the people has been seen as both political and democratic. Their struggles show that democracy is most certainly not about election results alone. It is also about debate and dialogue on public policy decisions, especially when these decisions are related to people’s livelihood. The concerns of both networks are related to notions of democracy, the contested meaning of participation and empowerment—especially of people normally excluded from politics—and calls for economic equality and social justice.

Such political conceptions of democracy have been criticized as organizationally ineffective and threatening to institutional democracy and state power. In the case of the UDD, participatory democracy revealed its tendency toward the local rather than the national. The conception of a political imaginary arises from the macro level to micro-processes of participation and anti-institutional practices. These face stiff competition from alternative articulations of power, such as deal making with ruling politicians. The UDD perception of democracy is thus most profoundly tested when its resultant practices seek compatibility with mainstream political institutions.

Both the PAD and the UDD can be seen as cross-class networks that have adopted a dual strategy: engaging in the issue-based politics of being for or against a particular person or subject matter, and at the same time comprising a social grouping for the betterment of the people. Both networks use the politics of networking in associating those affected by particular political projects or state policies in order to mobilize different networks’ members into a common identity. Members of the network share the same perspective and are committed to being more engaged in political struggles because of reciprocal perceptions deriving from direct experiences. According to interviews with individual members who participated in the struggles, perceptions of the power relationship between themselves and the authorities changed markedly.

However, the success of such a strategy turns on the responses by the state. Political conflicts were often regarded as part of the problem of Thailand’s dysfunctional power structure, and the ideas of participatory democracy had little force when confronted by trends of authoritarian practice. The role of institutional democracy within existing political institutions thus became the decisive factor in the network’s success or failure.

The diversity of networks’ membership and the quality of their organizational character suggest that both the PAD and the UDD constitute oppositional politics hinging on particular topics or charismatic leaders rather than particular classes or political identities. In terms of political strategy in dealing with elected politicians, a number of the network members form alliances with political officeholders in order to achieve their demands. This disparity of commitment created conflicts among movements’ networks and involved key players at all levels. Using extra-parliamentary politics against mainstream electoral institutions also reflects a negative perception of the established middle classes toward the emerging middle classes. For example, many PAD members believed that the UDD’s protesters were being manipulated by Thaksin and his followers, based on political interests.

Since the 2014 military coup, however, Thailand’s political networks have entered a critical period of examination. In contrast to other recent military coups, the coup of 2014 saw a particularly strong reassertion toward the creation of a neo-authoritarian state. The military government is represented by nationalist leaders who have tried to establish a new political legitimacy built upon their control over their bureaucratic subordinates and the mechanisms of state. The government does not only have an authoritarian culture of authority, but it also gains support from non-elected mechanisms, including the bureaucracy, military, and royal elites (Pye 1985, 321–325). It may be argued that this situation is intended to transform Thai politics from a hybrid regime or electoral authoritarianism to a full authoritarian regime. In this context, an organized political network has been set up by the state to protect the conservative wing. In other words, the government and its allies may move from yellow to blue and/or dark green networks.

In the end, critics of both networks would argue that they are essentially interest groups, invoking constructs such as moral politics, new politics, and the serf versus the aristocrat to legitimate their interests. By using the argument that political democracy would help promote socioeconomic equality, both networks were able to unite and turn their members into a political force, since the meaning of democracy becomes related to the issue of access to power by ordinary citizens.

In Thailand’s complex and rapidly changing market-oriented society, many social groups have higher expectations of a democratic system. For them, democracy is an electoral method of political competition. They, therefore, conduct themselves as political consumers who can choose between political products or policies offered by competing parties and politicians (Schumpeter 1954, 269-283). In other words, the two contesting networks effectively offered different proposals that actually came from their respective elites. Throughout the study, institutional assumptions of liberal representative democracy are challenged along three dimensions: as contesting perspectives of democracy, as an example of dynamism arriving from initiatives and practices of the networks, and as a case of practical struggle demanding for more participation in mainstream Thai politics. Through the study of the PAD and UDD, this paper provides a deeper understanding of the dynamism and contentious politics of these two political networks and their impacts on Thailand’s democratic polity.

Accepted: January 21, 2016


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1) Interviews with PAD members were conducted twice: in early 2009, after PAD members seized Bangkok airports; and in 2014, at the PAD stage in front of Government House during the People’s Democratic Reform Committee’s Bangkok Shutdown campaign. UDD members were interviewed in March and April 2010, during the big rally against the Abhisit government. Due to the political situation in Thailand, the interviewees shall remain anonymous.

2) These political parties were Thai Rak Thai (1998–2007), the People Power Party (2007–08), and Phue Thai (2008–present).

3) Thaksin Shinawatra is an ex-police officer and telecommunications tycoon. He was ousted from power in the September 19, 2006 military coup d’état. While Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile, he remains a hugely influential figure on the Thai political scene.

4) In the beginning, the CDR was self-proclaimed as the Council of Democratic Reform for Constitutional Monarchy. Later, the words “for constitutional monarchy” were removed to avoid international criticism.

5) After returning to Thailand in February 2008, Thaksin went into self-imposed exile that August, to avoid serving an anticipated jail term for corruption-related offenses.

6) Many scholars have argued that the judicial decision was made under pressure from the PAD’s political protest, especially with the seizure of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

7) Interviews with members of these networks were first conducted between August and October 2009, one year after the PAD seized Bangkok airports. Some groups were then revisited during the People’s Democratic Reform Committee’s Bangkok Shutdown campaign in early 2014 in order to see the similarities and differences between the networks. The total numbers of expert interviews from the PAD at the time were 30 people from 13 groups under this network.

8) Interviews with PAD network members, August 10, 15, and 25, 2009.

9) Interview with PAD leader, October 10, 2009. It was approximately one year after the PAD’s street blockades and occupation of Government House in 2008.

10) Personal interview with two members of the TTS, a network of the royal jet set that supports the PAD, June 8, 2010.

11) Seangtham’s political role could be seen also during the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)’s Bangkok Shutdown campaign in 2014. For more details, see, accessed October 22, 2015.

12) Under these circumstances, the state is not just playing the role of a normal developmental state that allocates national resources on selected issues, but it can be considered as a developmental authoritarian state as it puts electoral democracy aside while those in power taking the lead in developing the country’s economy are from its trusted networks, while civil society plays a role as a civic state from the patriotic point of view.

13) Personal interviews with UDD members were conducted between March and April 2010, before the government cracked down in May 2010.

14) A Tambon Administrative Organization is the smallest unit of local government in rural areas, while urban areas have municipalities. TAO leaders are elected every four years.

15) Some 1970s student activists who work with the Thai Rak Thai party, mostly from the North, can be considered as network members of the UDD. Other activists from Bangkok, such as the Dome Ruam Jai group (Thammasat alumni student activists), consider themselves as sympathizers of the UDD.

16) Personal interview, March 18, 2010. For more details, see McCargo and Naruemon (2011).


Vol. 5, No. 1, PASUK et al.

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 1 

Very Distinguished Alumni: Thai Political Networking

Pasuk Phongpaichit,* Nualnoi Treerat,** and Chris Baker*

*ผาสุก พงษ์ไพจิตร, based in Bangkok, Thailand

Corresponding author (Baker)’s e-mail: chrispasuk[at]

**นวลน้อย ตรีรัตน์, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand

The creation of elite networks can be explicit and deliberate, especially as a strategy to sustain an oligarchic political system. In Thailand, because of rapid economic and social change, there are few of the established, seemingly natural frameworks for networking found in more settled societies. Those hopeful of joining the power elite come from widely differing backgrounds. Paths through education are very fragmented. There are no clubs and associations that can serve as meeting places. Alumni associations have been brought into existence as one major way to meet the demand for a framework for power networking. This particular associational form is familiar and comfortable because it draws on aspects of collegiate life that most of the participants have experienced. The military pioneered this strategy in the 1960s. When the military’s power and prestige waned in the 1990s, several other institutions emerged to fill the gap. One of the most successful was the Stock Exchange of Thailand, which created the Capital Market Academy (CMA) in 2006. CMA offers academic courses, but its main purpose is to create an alumni association that serves as a network hub linking the main centers of power—bureaucracy, military, judiciary, big business, politicians, and select civil society. Such networks are critical to the rent-seeking activity that is one feature of oligarchic politics.

Keywords: Thailand, alumni networks, Capital Market Academy, military, oligarchic politics

The class that assembled for the first time in Bangkok in March 2010 was not an average group of freshmen students. To begin with, there was Banharn Silpa-archa, a former prime minister and 40-year veteran of parliamentary politics who, at age 77, was hardly in the usual catchment for education. Beside him on the school benches were five other former ministers, one of whom had also been commander-in-chief of the army; two other generals; two deputy police chiefs; the head and two deputy heads of major government agencies; and a sprinkling of judges and MPs. In a class of fewer than 100 students, this concentration of the powerful could not have occurred by chance. Nor was this an ancient and prestigious seat of learning. The academy had been founded only five years earlier, and the vast majority of Thailand’s population had never heard of it. It was called the Capital Market Academy (CMA), and its stated aim was to educate people, primarily businessmen, about corporate finance and investment.

Of course, the reason why this school’s benches groaned under the weight of so much power had nothing at all to do with the content of the coursework or the value of the certificate received on graduation. Rather, it had everything to do with networking. These powerful people were here because the others were too. The CMA1) is the latest and most spectacularly successful example of an institutional form that has become uniquely important in Thai politics—a quasi-school that exists primarily to form a network among its alumni.

The relatively low level of institutionalization in Thai public life has been noted many times—from the Cornell anthropologists’ notion of “loose structure” in the 1950s through to Danny Unger’s work on limited social capital in the 1990s (Embree 1950; Unger 1998). The monarchy, military, and bureaucracy are the only organizations with both structure and historical depth. Parliament has been constantly disrupted over the years. With just one exception, political parties are ephemeral. Business associations have only recently acquired more weight. The rapid pace of economic and social change in recent decades has also meant that institution building lags behind social realities. In this situation, the business of forming networks linking different, fragmented nodes of power has become of critical importance. The founding of the CMA can be seen as a deliberate attempt to create a network hub with linkages into several of the dispersed centers of power in Thai society.

This paper examines the rise of the CMA as a window into the arcane background of Thailand’s oligarchical politics. The first section of the paper traces the emergence of the political alumni network over past decades. The remaining sections outline the foundation, rapid rise, and immense influence of the CMA.

I The Development of the Political Alumni Network

The original model for the new political alumni networks came from the alumni associations of major universities. Until the 1960s, most recruits into Thailand’s elite, other than its military component, passed through one or other of the country’s first two universities, Chulalongkorn and Thammasat. Social bonds among students were cemented by hazing rituals, sports, and other campus activities. Alumni associations were formed to preserve these bonds into later life. The resulting networks, particularly those focused on certain faculties (e.g., Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Political Science), were important in the relatively narrow social and political elite of the time, especially in the bureaucracy.

The military adopted and modified this model. Classmates at the Chulachomklao Military Academy and the Cadet School were encouraged to form strong lateral ties and to preserve these ties through alumni activities in subsequent years. As a result, by the 1980s the class groups of certain years had become players in the internal politics of the military.2)

Changes in the power structure of the country between the 1960s and the 1980s created a demand to extend this network model to embrace newly emerging nodes of power. The absolute dominance of narrow elites in the civilian and military bureaucracy was diminished as new political forces developed. The bureaucracy itself expanded in size and complexity, particularly with the addition of new technocratic functions. Business groups became richer and more politically established. Provincial centers rose in importance, and their business elites were drawn into national society by improved communications. Parliament and electoral politics emerged as a tentative forum for some of these new forces.

The alumni networks of the old educational institutions gradually became less effective as means to build links among people who mattered. Many of the luminaries of the emerging business world were unable to gain admission to the old universities. Instead, they were trained in new government universities or rising numbers of private universities, with Assumption Business Administration College being especially favored. Often they went overseas, especially to the United States, for the final stages of their education. New provincial leaders often rose through universities in the provinces. Several new alumni networks emerged, particularly focused on Assumption Business Administration College, Ramkhamhaeng Open University, and informal groupings among graduates from favored US locations such as Boston—but overall the trend was toward fragmentation.

Against this background, in 1989 the military made a key innovation: founding a quasi-academic body with a major and perhaps preeminent purpose of building a wider form of the networks associated with alumni.

Earlier, in 1955, the military had founded the National Security Academy (Witthayalai Pongkan Tatcha-anajak, Wo Po Or) to give short-course training to civilians in order to instill in their minds the importance of national security and the role of the military. Students included both military officers and outsiders, mainly civilian bureaucrats. Besides its role as a propaganda vehicle for the military, this institution gradually became important for building informal links out from the military into newly important social groups. In 1989 the military created a new institution to accelerate the development of this networking, the National Security Academy for Government and Private Sector (Po Ro Or). At the time, the military’s role in the polity was coming under increasing attack from business quarters. A burning issue was complaints that the military budget was eating into the regular annual budgets, which should have been used for projects to support industries and other businesses. Po Ro Or primarily recruited students from business and other civil society groups. In 2003, it launched an extra program specifically targeted at politicians.3)

At these National Security Academies, the educational content was less important than the active encouragement of bonding and networking. Much classwork was in groups. Students made many trips and visits, both within Thailand and overseas, which offered long periods for socialization. Contact in the classroom was supplemented on the golf course and in exclusive clubs and karaoke parlors. Bonds formed during the course were sustained by an active round of alumni activities. Most important, these academies actively inculcated the military culture of unconditional commitment to help colleagues in every possible way. Refusing a request from an old classmate would be bad form.

The National Security Academies were initially highly successful. Many of the most prominent businessmen of the era joined the classes. So, too, did many highfliers in the civilian bureaucracy and some select members of the media and civil society. The resulting links were vital in bridging the gaps between military, civilian, business, and professional groups. For two decades, there was scarcely a major figure in Thai public life (outside royalty) that had not attended one of these programs.

After the political crisis of 1991–92,4) however, the prestige of the military was badly damaged and its role in national politics sharply reduced. The attraction of the National Security Academies consequently declined, though not immediately or completely, because their function in network building to some extent existed quite apart from any association with the military. This gradual decline created a demand for further innovation in this area of network formation.

At least three new institutions were launched in the same tradition. Each was ostensibly designed to promote public education. All became important as sites of alumni networking, but one much more spectacularly than the others.

The King Prajadhiphok Institute was founded in the wake of the 1991–92 political crisis with the aim of promoting democracy through research and educational activities among the public at large and among politicians themselves.5) The institute launched short courses, with students including MPs along with officials, businessmen, and members of civil society groups.

In 1997, the judicial establishment launched its own academy with the twin aims of educating judicial personnel about society and educating the public about the working of the judiciary. It also adopted the format of short courses, with a mixture of judicial personnel along with senior officials and others. By 2010, some 627 people had graduated from its courses.

II The Rise of the CMA

The Capital Market Academy (CMA) was founded in 2005 by the board of the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET). The impetus for this move came from a survey commissioned by SET in 2002 to discover why the exchange, after an initial spurt of growth, had tended to stagnate, attracting little new interest or money from domestic sources. Around that time there were several scandals involving insider trading and stock churning. These scandals affected SET’s reputation and made it difficult for the exchange to win support, either in government circles or among the general public, for any innovation. The survey found that people did not invest in the exchange because they did not understand how it worked, believed it to be complicated and non-transparent, and thought it required insider information for success.6) As a result of the survey, SET launched a slew of activities, including the establishment of a library, regular television programming, publications for students, and regular seminars. It also established CMA with the aim “to create a new frontier in top-executives programs, as its course blends knowledge in the capital market with leadership and ethics. It is aimed at developing top-quality leaders who will play a key role in the Thai capital market.”7) SET believed that a training program that brought together members of the private sector, both inside and outside the capital market, along with figures from government, military, police, judiciary, media, academia, and NGOs, would create a better understanding about the roles of SET: “If these people see the importance of the SET for the Thai economy, then they will try to nurture and protect it. They will also facilitate policy changes.”8)

CMA’s “leadership training program” consists of lectures, seminars, case studies, discussions, and study trips. Participants take 60 hours of coursework, attending classes three times a week over a period of four months. There are also trips, seminars, and other activities. The course is divided under three headings: knowledge about the capital market, 50 percent; corporate governance, 25 percent; and leadership roles and social responsibility, 25 percent. The content is largely technical, and the sessions are led by experts in the field. Participants have to present a final project paper in order to qualify for a certificate of achievement. The course is free, though participants have to pay for meals and the expenses of study tours. CMA offers the course twice a year.

At first CMA targeted the course rather narrowly at mid-career business executives involved in the financial markets and equivalent personnel in government departments dealing with economic and financial policies, plus a few from media and civil society (see Table 1). CMA recruited by sending invitations to relevant companies (financial firms, listed companies, companies with potential to be listed) and government departments, allowing the company or department to choose the participants. CMA also specifically excluded politicians. It was soon realized that this process failed to ensure that participants were the appropriate people involved in policy making. In addition, some politicians lobbied to be invited.


Table 1 Participants in CMA Classes 1 to 10 (2005–10)


Thus, from the fourth cohort, in late 2006, CMA shifted its targeting upward to senior people thought to be relevant to policy making or opinion formation, and began directly inviting individuals rather than leaving the choice up to a company or government department. Civilian officials had to be of director level or above, except in the case of officials from the Ministry of Finance, where the bar was lowered slightly in view of the ministry’s importance for the financial market. Invitees from business had to be owners or high-level executives. In addition to these two main groups, SET also began to invite key figures from the public sphere, including MPs, senators, ministers, and public figures considered to be important as role models and opinion leaders.9) Initially the upper age limit for participants had been set at 50, but after this change of policy the average age rose to 55. In each course, SET deliberately contrived to have a mix of participants—some politicians, some judiciary, some military, some civilians, some leading business executives or owners, some upcoming stars.

With this shift in recruitment policy, CMA had the potential to become an important new center for networking. The popularity of the course rapidly rose. At first, each class had been limited to 50 participants, but demand was so strong that the limit was gradually expanded to 100. By 2010, CMA had a backlog of more than 700 applicants wanting to attend the course.

Significantly, many attending the course were already experienced at this form of networking. Of the total of 771 attendees up to early 2010, 364 had already attended the National Security Academy.

III From Training School to Networking Center

As with other such courses, the importance of CMA as a locus of network formation was present from the beginning, but it expanded markedly when SET broadened the catchment area beyond the financial industry to a more elite level.

The organization of the courses seems designed to promote CMA’s network function at least as much as its education. The coursework is conducted three times a week in a SET-owned building, conveniently situated next to a prestigious golf course in Bangkok’s inner suburbs. Many participants make a day (and night) of it by playing a round of golf with classmates in the morning, capping that with a sociable lunch, proceeding from class to a group dinner, and continuing for karaoke until late in the night. Each class also has several short trips and at least one (optional) overseas tour of 7 to 10 days (for example, to see the stock exchanges in New York and Tokyo), providing opportunities for extended socialization. These extracurricular activities ensure that participants are able to build strong personal relationships within the four-month period of the course.

As proof of CMA’s rapid emergence as a center of elite networking, an alumni organization was brought into being in 2007 after the completion of only five classes. Members of all five cohorts combined to found the Association of Capital Market Academy Alumni with the stated aim to “create network of relations which will be useful for activities in the name of participants, and as a center to get students together to work for the benefits of the society, and to support economic development and the capital market of the country.”10) Emphasizing the key role of networking, this association adopted as its motto “Synergizing Knowledge, Vision, and Leadership.” The alumni organization was soon involved in an anti-drug campaign, a youth leadership program, a project to combat global warming, environmental activism, charity works, and public seminars—besides a program of social activities and sports events to sustain the bonds created during the four-month course over many years to come.11)

The crest of CMA, proposed by the alumni association, is a unity symbol signifying cooperation, surrounded by a blooming lotus with eight petals, encircled by double rings signifying strength, endurance, knowledge, morality, and ethics (Fig. 1).



Fig. 1Crest and Logo of the Capital Market Academy


CMA made some key innovations in the institutional model borrowed from the military academies. Perhaps the most striking is in the form of address among classmates and alumni. In usual Thai practice, people address one another with pronouns that reflect relative age or seniority. The senior is addressed as phi, or elder brother/sister, and the junior as nong, or younger brother/sister. In CMA, everybody addresses everyone else as phi, even in cases where the difference in age and seniority is obvious and marked. Individuals sometimes use this strategy in situations where they are careful to avoid giving offense. But in this case, the universal practice is clearly part of an attempt to reduce the social distance between participants who come from rather varied backgrounds, and thus to simplify and encourage the building of mutual relationships. One graduate, who had initially found it strange being addressed as phi by a retired general over 20 years his senior, remarked: “This is to show respect, by way of avoiding the actual hierarchy, making everybody horizontal.”

As is traditional among university alumni, classes also stage the kind of clowning around that breaks down barriers. One graduate recalled:

Mr. . . . [A deputy prime minister, in his 60s] was asked to dress as a woman and dance for everyone to see on the stage. He did it. Once you are in the same class, whatever you are asked to do, you have to do it. It’s like rabop run [the classmate system at a university or military academy].

CMA also fosters practices to increase contact between members of different classes. Each class member is given a running number and is expected to act as a godfather/godmother to the person with the same number in the next class. In addition, alumni of all preceding classes are invited to appear at welcoming ceremonies for each new class and other key events, such as regular dinner talks. Whereas classes from military academies sometimes become competitors in military and national politics, CMA actively encourages vertical links between classes, as well as horizontal ties among each class’s members.

IV The Ties That Bind

Some graduates of CMA genuinely appreciate the opportunity to learn about the operation of the capital market within a short span of time. A few are exceptionally enthusiastic. According to other class members, one MP and former minister “asked so many questions, taking up the time of other people.” But generally speaking, most graduates see the major benefits of attending CMA to be the number, variety, and quality of the links that they are able to establish in such a short span of time. One reported:

As for learning, it may be better to spend time reading for yourself. But from the social perspective, the program is wonderful. It’s good for building connections for information and support. It helps widen the worldview. People do think differently. Many people have conflicting views. But this is a chance to talk and exchange opinions. Many of the class members have achieved something in their fields. When they study together in the same class, the conflict is not sharp. Whatever happens, we are still the same class. People avoid extreme views. There are people who are very Yellow, while others are very Red. But they do not show their true colors. The ties that bind are mutual interests.12)

These links are especially important to business participants, but they are important also to others, including politicians and journalists:

Businesspeople benefit in the long run. Meeting politicians such as ministers gives them connections. When someone from their class is in government, they have connections to some extent, creating opportunities for future deals. Politicians also want to connect to businesses. They were the ones who pushed SET to let them in as participants.
For a columnist who writes regularly for a newspaper, businessmen give him business clues and news. There are so many people from the financial world. One of my younger class attendees is a deputy manager in Krung Thai Bank.
My class elder with the same running number is an ex-minister. He talked to me and helped all the time. I can ring him any time. This is a new connection I got from attending CMA. I was also invited to give some lessons in CMA later, after I graduated. If I had not attended, I would not have had these opportunities.
I need some funds for scholarships for my students. I asked for donations from some of the big business people I met. They were helpful.13)

Within the short span of five years after its foundation, CMA was seen to have an important function within the elites of power and money. A member of the CMA alumni said:

CMA is now a force to be reckoned with. It will effect economic changes in Thailand. It is an economic elite with ties to bureaucracy, and now politicians. It is not an ordinary network.

A CMA instructor summarized:

People want endless connections. CMA has become a place for people of diverse backgrounds to meet and make deals. Undersecretaries and directors from budgetary offices, judiciary, forestry, revenue, excise, members of state enterprise boards—they are all very useful connections.

V Politicians

The founders of CMA were initially reluctant to admit politicians to the courses, choosing instead to limit recruitment to people directly involved in the capital market. However, from early on, some politicians lobbied for CMA to change this policy and admit them. After CMA agreed, Class 5 (the fifth cohort) in late 2007 was the first to admit politicians, including a long-standing Democrat MP and another prominent MP and newspaper columnist.14)

Class 6 in early 2008 admitted several ministers and ex-ministers along with political advisers, leading businessmen, and five army generals.15) The political atmosphere at the time was rather tense. In late 2006, the army had overthrown the government of Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup. In December 2007, parliamentary rule was restored through a general election. Prior to this election, the army invested large sums of public money to prevent the return of a government loyal to Thaksin. As part of this effort, the coup generals had established new political parties and lured former pro-Thaksin MPs to join them. The most important of these parties was Phuea Phaendin. At the December 2007 polls, however, these parties performed poorly, and the pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) ended up heading a new government. The Phuea Phaendin Party became a minority partner in the coalition (Pasuk and Baker 2010). Maneuvers to influence the loyalty of individual politicians continued. One member of CMA Class 6 was an MP of the pro-Thaksin PPP. He persuaded two other members of the class to publicly join the PPP. One of these was a Phuea Phaendin MP and deputy minister of finance. The other was a general who had been deputy army chief and head of the Third Army during the coup.16)

The incident was widely reported and attracted a lot of comment. It cemented the reputation of CMA as a key center for networking. While the majority of participants in CMA were still drawn from finance-related businesses, later classes included more people from various centers of power. In Class 7, for the first time the participants included bureaucrats of undersecretary level, and in total nine attended over the next four classes. From Class 5 onward, each cohort averaged five generals, seven people from the judiciary, three from the police, and three from politics. Although the numbers from politics were relatively few, the stature of those few lent CMA a certain luster. Class 10 included former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa along with a former acting prime minister, a former deputy prime minister, three other former ministers (one also a former army chief), and a veteran Democrat MP.17) They shared the class benches with two deputy police chiefs, two more generals, a deputy attorney general, the secretary-general of the Board of Investment, and a deputy director of the Revenue Department.

VI Influence in Financial Policy

In late 2007, one member of CMA Class 5 wrote a research report titled “Development of the Thai Capital Market: Importance and Approach.” The report discussed the problem of the Thai capital market at the time, particularly after the central bank had imposed a controversial reserve requirement to discourage short-term capital inflow. Minister of Finance Surapong Suebwonglee18) was invited to attend a discussion on the report, during which a suggestion was put forward to set up a committee on the development of the capital market. The minister agreed and promptly got Cabinet approval. In March 2008, the committee was constituted with 23 members from government departments and the private sector. Five of the members were CMA alumni, proposed by CMA.19)

Although there had been much comment on the need to develop the Thai capital market in recent years, nothing concrete had resulted. However, this new committee was able to gain cooperation from many government agencies and come up with unusually wide-ranging proposals in a very short time. The Board of Investment agreed to adjust promotional policies to favor listed companies. The Ministry of Commerce agreed to amend regulations that obstructed listing. The Revenue Department agreed to discuss tax breaks for listed companies. The office overseeing state enterprises was open to proposals for facilitating the listing of more state-linked enterprises. Officers of the stock exchange were very pleased by this result and attributed it in large part to the network links of CMA alumni. Many involved in the process were CMA alumni. Others hoped to attend CMA in the future. A SET official commented, “For small things, now there is no need for calling a meeting. We can ring one another to explain the issues.”20)

One result of this process was the four-year Plan for Development of the Thai Capital Market (2010–13), submitted to the Ministry of Finance.21) The plan proposed tax reforms to promote share dealing, the development of more financial products to stimulate investment by the public, the development of bond and derivatives markets, and the promotion of long-term savings. The centerpiece of the plan was a proposal to privatize the Stock Exchange of Thailand.

SET is effectively a state agency, governed by an act of parliament, founded with capital from a state finance company. The plan argued that SET was a monopoly, with all the attendant inefficiency, and that privatization was a key strategy for making the capital market more efficient. Not everybody in the financial industry concurred with this view. Some saw the privatization move as an outrageous example of insider trading. One financial executive commented, “Now SET wants to privatize. There is a need to prepare those involved for this change. The people who will be responsible for this privatization are now all involved with SET, either as personnel or as alumni. As all the people who are involved in the process are now in the CMA, so they are all in accord.”

Following on from the four-year plan, legislation for demutualization of the stock market was drafted under the Democrat Party-led government (2009–11) and sent for scrutiny by the Council of State. After the Democrat Party was defeated at elections in 2011, the bill was withdrawn. Disagreement over the legislation focused especially on the fate of the 15-billion baht fund for the development of the capital market, part of which was raised as a levy on the fee income of the member companies in the exchange. Under the reform legislation, the fund would be separated from the exchange and constituted as a non-profit juristic person. The member companies, and the government installed in 2011, feared that the fund would be misused. The finance minister also feared that the reforms would transform the stock exchange from a non-profit organization into a business that would fall under the control of a small group of investors, resulting not in greater efficiency but in more conflict of interest. In other words, in the view of opponents, the stock market reform plan that emerged from CMA was an ambitious attempt to alter the distribution of interests and benefits from the stock market.


Thailand’s Capital Market Academy is a new institution. The qualifications that it bestows on its students are of minimal value. Yet the academy has a star-studded student body and a waiting list as long as its total enrollment over its five years of existence. People now have to politick and pull strings to gain admission.

The fact that the CMA alumni network has been created out of nowhere is a function of demand—and of a special kind of demand that exists in the oligarchic style of politics found in Thailand and many similar countries. The military, parliament, various segments of business, and various sections of the bureaucracy have their own internal power networks. However, in the increasingly complex political society that has developed in recent decades, a network of links across a variety of key institutions is a prerequisite of power. Because of rapid economic and social change, there are few of the established, seemingly natural frameworks for networking found in more settled societies (alumni associations of select schools and universities, elite social and sports clubs, interlocking directorships, etc.). Those hopeful of joining the power elite come from widely differing backgrounds. Paths through education are very fragmented. There are almost no clubs and associations that can serve as meeting places.

Alumni associations have been brought into existence to serve as hubs in networks that span across the power centers of society. The particular associational form of an alumni network is familiar and comfortable because it draws on aspects of collegiate life that most of the participants have experienced. The military must be credited with elaborating this form into something more useful for political networking. From the 1960s to the 1990s, anybody who wanted to be somebody attended a course at the National Security Academy.

Two key features of the National Security Academy courses were tailored to the needs of network formation in an oligarchic polity. First, the recruits were drawn from a range of power centers—military, police, business, bureaucracy, banking, judiciary, and politics. Second, admission was exclusive; students were handpicked.

The political crisis of 1991–92 damaged the prestige of the military, yet its academy continued to attract the would-be powerful. More important, the political sphere became much more complex with the growing wealth of business, increased importance of parliament, and new significance of the judiciary. The fact that CMA so quickly became the framework for a new business-political alumni network indicates a demand for something similar to the National Security Academy yet not so closely associated with the military.

The fact that this new network was connected to the stock exchange and the capital market is clearly significant. Similar academies founded by the judiciary and the political establishment (through the King Prajadhiphok Institute) have been much less successful than CMA. This seems to indicate the primary role of business in the Thai oligarchy of power.

Lastly, such networks are critical to the rent-seeking activity that is one feature of oligarchic politics. The proposed privatization of the stock exchange, planned by CMA alumni, is probably yet another scheme to convert public assets into private capital.

Accepted: January 21, 2016


Embree, John F. 1950. Thailand: A Loosely Structured Social System. American Anthropologist 52(2): 181–193.

Nualnoi Treerat; and Phakphum Wanitchaka. 2010. A Mapping of Macro Power Structure: A Case Study of High-Level Training Short Courses. Second progress report for the research project on “Towards a Fairer Thai Society” under the Distinguished Professor Project, funded by the Thailand Research Fund, Chulalongkorn University, and the Office of Higher Education, presented at the workshop on March 16, 2010, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University.

Pasuk Phongpaichit; and Baker, Chris. 2010. The Mask-Play Election: Generals, Politicians, and Voters at Thailand’s 2007 Poll. ARI working papers series No. 144,, accessed March 1, 2011.

Stock Exchange of Thailand. 2010. List of Students for the Capital Market Academy Class 10. March–July.

―. 2009. Handbook for the Capital Market Academy, Class 9, September–December.

Unger, Danny. 1998. Building Social Capital in Thailand: Fibers, Finance and Infrastructure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Participant S, March 1, 2010.

Participant K, March 7, 2010.

Vice Chairperson V. SET, March 10, 2010.

1) In Thai, Sathaban Withayakan Talat Thun. CMA’s Web site is, accessed January 19, 2016.

2) Most famously, Class 5 of the Military Academy was responsible for the coup of 1988.

3) This program was closed in 2007 in response to criticism that it unduly enhanced military interference in politics.

4) The army took power in a coup but was later forced from power by street demonstrations and was greatly reviled for the killing of many demonstrators.

5) The idea of forming such an institute was mooted in 1993 and brought to fruition in 1998. On the structure and aims of KPI, see, accessed January 19, 2016.

6) Vichet Tantiwanit, deputy chairman of CMA, interview, March 10, 2010.

7) SET President Kittirat Na Ranong, speaking at the inauguration of CMA’s first leadership program on September 3, 2005 (, accessed June 4, 2012).

8) SET executive, interview, March 10, 2010.

9) In 2007 the head of the Stock Exchange Commission (SEC), the body regulating SET, attended the course, and thereafter a senior figure from SEC was regularly invited.

10) (Stock Exchange of Thailand 2009, 51)

11) Activities included the following: support for the “business for society” program of the Population and Community Association (Mechai Viravaidya); Special Olympics (sports for special persons); anti-drug campaigns in the three southern provinces; a youth leadership project in a village in Amphoe Nang Rong, Buriram; an energy-saving project via a green school room at Yupparat College, Chiang Mai; a global warming reduction project with the Electricity Generating Authority in Chiang Mai; supporting sports equipment for youngsters in Nakhon Ratchasima; supporting a wastewater treatment plant and biogas pit at a school in Chiang Rai; warm blanket projects for 11 remote schools in Chiang Rai; seminars for public knowledge.

12) Interview with an academic member of CMA Class 6. As noted by this observer, such elite networking has existed in parallel with, but separate from, the color-coded street politics of recent years.

13) Interview with a member of CMA Class 8.

14) Suphatra Masdit and Nitiphum Nawarat.

15) These included Chawarat Chanveerakul, head of a major construction firm and later deputy prime minister; Suwit Khunkitti, former minister; Panpree Phahitthanukon, nephew of former Prime Minister Chatichai Chunhavan and adviser to the deputy prime minister in 2008; and Phichai Naripthaphan, deputy minister of finance in 2008. Several army generals were invited, namely, General Somjet Bunthanom, chairman of the advisory group of the Ministry of Defense; General Theerawat Buyapradap, deputy army chief; General Jiradet Kotcharat, deputy army chief; and General Chainarong Nunphakdi, chairman of the executive board, Nawanakorn company.

16) Panpree Mahitthanukon, an adviser to the prime minister, persuaded Phichai Naripthaphan, deputy minister of finance under the Phuea Phandin Party, and General Jiradet Khotcharat, deputy army chief and head of the Third Army during the coup government in 2006–07, to move to the PPP.

17) Police General Chidchai Wannasathit, acting prime minister, April–May 2006; Surapong Suebwonglee, deputy prime minister and minister of finance, 2008; Somsak Prisanananthakul, minister of agriculture and agricultural cooperatives, 2008; Worathep Rattanakorn, minister of finance in the Thaksin government; General Chettha Thanajaro, minister of science, later of defense, 2003–04; Ong-at Klampaiboon, Democrat MP.

18) His wife, Pranee, attended the next CMA class (7).

19) The committee included directors of the Commerce and Business Promotion and Revenue Departments, the governor of the Bank of Thailand, the secretary-general of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), the chairperson of the Thai Banking Association, the secretary-general of the civil service pension funds, the secretary-general of SET, etc.

20) Vichet Tantiwanit, interview, March 10, 2010.

21) These proposals were still on the table in 2015, awaiting government approval and legislation.


Vol. 3, No. 2, Suehiro Akira

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 2

Technocracy and Thaksinocracy in Thailand: Reforms of the Public Sector and the Budget System under the Thaksin Government

Suehiro Akira*

* 末廣 昭, Institute of Social Science, the University of Tokyo, 7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0033, Japan

e-mail: asuehiro[at]

Thaksin Shinawatra seized power in 2001 and then was exiled from Thailand after the military coup d’etat in September 2006. He himself is still the focal point of serious political conflict taking place in contemporary Thailand. He has always been attacked by anti-Thaksin groups on account of the following reasons: extreme power concentration, the political style of Thaksinocracy, nepotism, corruption, and populism in favor of rural people. However, very few scholars have focused on his political and social reforms which aimed at modernizing the Kingdom of Thailand in order to reorganize the country into a strong state.

This article seeks to clarify the characteristics of the Thaksin government as a “destructive creator” of existing power structure and traditional bureaucracy. The article offers a brief discussion of Thaksin’s populist policies such as village funds, 30 baht medical services, and one tambon one product (OTOP) project, and then explores the background of, the process behind, and the policy results of two major reforms undertaken by the Thaksin government in the public sector (bureaucracy) and the budget system. These reforms appear to have transformed Thailand from a traditional bureaucratic polity into a modern state in conjunction with an emerging middle-income country in the global capitalism. But Thaksin’s ambitious reforms ultimately collapsed because they were too radical and too speedy for all the people, including royalists, the military, government officers, as well as conservatives.

Keywords: Thailand, Thaksinocracy, political reform, public sector, the budget system, bureaucracy, populism, strong state


In September 2006, a military coup d’etat toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s five-and-a-half-year-old government. The Temporary Constitution dated October 1 claimed the following as the reason for the coup:

 The head of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy which seized power successfully on 19 September 2006, informed the king that the reasons for seizing power and abrogating the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand were to correct the deterioration in the government of the realm, and inefficiency in managing the government of the realm and monitoring the use of state power, which caused widespread corruption and malfeasance, for which those responsible could not be brought to account. This brought about a serious crisis of politics and government, and problems of conflict among the mass of the people who were aroused to such divisive partisanship that the unity and harmony among the people of the nation collapsed into a severe social crisis.1)

Likewise, the mass media of Thailand criticized Thaksin’s management of the state on the grounds that he had provoked a serious national crisis owing to the concentration of power, prevalence of nepotism, wide-ranging corruption, and destruction of democracy under his watch (Nariphon 2006; Wichai 2006). However, viewing the military coup simply as the result of a conflict between the movement of democratization and Thaksin’s dictatorship, and a product of popular protest against a corrupt government does not offer an adequate understanding of why the coup happened as well as an insightful analysis of fundamental problems facing contemporary Thailand under the strong pressures of globalization and economic liberalization (Suehiro 2009).

After the 2006 coup, Thailand has suffered continuous political instability due to the conflict between the pro-Thaksin group or red shirts group and the anti-Thaksin group or yellow shirts group. For the past six years from 2007 to 2012, analyses of Thai politics and society have significantly deepened. Those who focused on the sharp conflict between the red shirts group and the yellow shirts group began to turn their attention to more fundamental problems rooted in Thai society, namely, the widening gap in income and assets among the people (not poverty problems), and the basic conflict between the mass people (lower-income class) and the traditional ruling elites (royalists, military, bureaucrats, and capitalists) (Montesano et al. 2012). However, these arguments fail to provide explanation of the real cause of the military coup in 2006. More importantly, they fail to provide a comprehensive explanation of the impact of Thaksin’s reforms on Thai politics and society. Given this situation, we still need to explain the real cause of the military coup as well as the total picture of reforms undertaken by Thaksin.

My hypothesis in this article is very simple. The real cause of the military coup is the conflict between Thaksin, on the one hand, who forcibly conducted reforms of the state, and royalist-military groups, on the other hand, who believed that his state reforms constituted a serious threat to the monarchy. At the same time, government officials and people have been apprehensive about the outcomes of Thaksin’s intensive reforms because these reforms were undertaken too speedily and too radically in the context of Thai social values, which preferred gradual reform towards a democratized country over a big-bang style reform towards an advanced country. This is the most important reason why the majority of the people including the people in rural areas temporarily welcomed or accepted the military coup, at least in its initial stage.2)

We should not overlook the fact that Thaksin was Janus-faced in his style of state management: he presented himself as an ambitious populist3) as well as an active state reformist. These two faces exactly correspond to two world-wide movements during the 1990s: the political movement for democratization and the economic movement for glob­alization and liberalization. As Tamada cogently pointed out, the 1997 Constitution was a direct product of the democratization movement after the May 1992 bloody incident, or Phrusapa Thamin, in Thailand. Ironically, the 1997 Constitution also created a “strong prime minister” like Thaksin Shinawatra through changes in general election system, new regulations on the activities of political parties, increased authority of prime minister, and elimination of parliament members from cabinet members (Tamada 2005; Tamada and Funatsu 2008).

It was the enhanced executive power of Thaksin that enabled him to implement his populist policies, and in turn contributed to his great popularity among the people. On this account, many scholars including anti-Thaksin group and mass media have frequently analyzed Thaksin’s management of the state by focusing on his populist-oriented policies such as village funds, people’s banks, one tambon (village) one product movement or OTOP, and 30-baht universal health services (Worawan 2003).4) But these projects are only one part of his overall policy objectives, and populist-oriented policies have reduced importance in his reform efforts after February 2005, when a ruling party of Thai Rak Thai or TRT won 377 out of the total 500 seats in the House of Representatives in the general election.

Thaksin’s second face, that of a state reformist, revealed itself in 2005. Indeed, he attempted to remake the Kingdom of Thailand into a modernized state that would survive the world-wide waves of globalization, economic liberalization, and IT revolution. In his eyes, old-fashioned management of the state would isolate Thailand from global capitalism. An economically advanced country needs to reform its institutions, practices, and social values in line with the new international circumstances, just as a modern corporation needs to reform its management in keeping with the times (Pran 2004, Vol. 1; ­Suehiro 2009, Ch. 5).

Such assumptions are apparent in his Kingdom of Thailand Modernization Framework or the KTMF. KTMF was addressed to foreign and domestic investors who were present at the prime minister’s residence in December 2005, and provided detailed information on the Mega Projects amounting to 1,800 billion baht (Shukan Tai Keizai, January 30, 2006). Interestingly, Thaksin also used other key words such as knowledge, technology, management, and finance to explain the KTMF. The major obstacles to the KTMF, in Thaksin’s view, are the old-fashioned public sector and the conservative culture of government officials (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 300–301).5) Consequently, his reforms were naturally directed at the public sector (Thai-style bureaucracy) and the budget system under the control of the bureaucracy. He aimed to fill the gap between the economic status of Thailand as a middle-income country and her poor-performing institutions which had failed to ride the new wave of international movements.

This article aims to clarify the changes in Thai bureaucracy and technocracy under the Thaksin government (between February 2001 and September 2006) in particular the effort to transform Thai bureaucracy into Thaksinocracy (Thaksinathipatai) rather than democracy (Prachathipatai) by answering the following questions: what were the major characteristics of Thaksin’s style of state management or Thaksinomics (section II)? how has Thaksin changed the mechanism of decision-making in order to reform the Kingdom of Thailand (section III)? what kind of socio-economic policies were introduced (section IV)? how did Thaksin view the traditional bureaucracy and how did he reform the public sector (section V)? how did he change the budget system to promote his strategic agenda (section VI)? and finally, what were the results of his drastic reforms (section VII)? Through these arguments and the follow-up of the political turmoil after the 2006 coup, I explore the essence of Thaksinomics and Thaksinocracy rather than provide mere criticism of his arbitrary use of state power.

What is a Thaksinomics?

Three Elements of Thaksinomics

Originally, “Thaksinomics” is a term employed by the mass media and scholars to criticize Thaksin Shinawatra’s political style. But after 2003, Thaksin himself also began to employ this term in his speeches to express his own political thought as well as his strategy of “dual-track policies” (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 26–38). Based on my observations, Thaksinomics consists of three major elements: 1) a corporate approach to management of the state; 2) a strategic approach to reform of public services as encoded by the slogan, “vision, mission, and goal”; and 3) a dual approach to revitalize Thai economy and society, or so-called “dual-track policies” (nayobai khuap-khu).

First of all, Thaksin has frequently and publicly expressed his idea that “a state is a company, and a prime minister is a CEO of country” (ibid., 223–233; Pasuk and Baker 2004, 101). The CEO or Chief Executive Officer is the supreme person who is essentially empowered to appoint a top managerial class and to make the final decisions in operating a company. Following this concept, Thaksin envisioned the prime minister position as unchallenged leadership in state management. In the same way, he expected a minister to be the CEO of his or her respective Ministry, a governor to be CEO of a province (phu-wa CEO), and an ambassador to be CEO of an embassy (Thut CEO), and so on. 6)

His idea seems to have percolated from his own experience as the top leader who controlled the Shin Group, the largest business empire of the telecommunications industry in Thailand.7) He also borrowed his idea from the arguments of Somkid Jatusripitak, a professor of National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), as laid out in his remarkable papers on “Thailand Company” as well as “A Leader in the Future” (Somkid 2001, 76–80; Wirat 2001). Thanks to these ideas, Somkid served as one of the key members of the TRT executive committee, and was later appointed Finance Minister when Thaksin set up his first government in February 2001.

Second, Thaksin ordered all the government agencies including public schools and hospitals to clarify their own “vision, mission, goal” (wisaithat, na-thi, paomai) in reference to their tasks for the people. He requested this clarification at each level of government agencies from ministerial level through departmental and divisional levels, and finally to the individual level. At the same time, they are all subject to performance evaluation by both internal bodies and third-party team in reference to the initial targets of each group. Analogous to a company management, strategy and competition were deemed by Thaksin as essential instruments for improving public services, and therefore he claimed a strategic approach rather than experience-based practices.

Third, he introduced the new agenda of dual-track policies, which aimed at pro­moting a grass-roots economy (setthakit rak-ya) in rural areas on the one hand, and enhancing international competitiveness among big firms in urban area on the other.8) What is unique about Thaksin’s policies is that the main purpose for promoting the grass-roots economy is not to reduce poverty in rural areas (the traditional style politics of clemency and charity), but to give chances or opportunities for rural people to ­create their own business and employment (a new style politics in the era of the global capitalism).

In this context, Thaksin promoted “community business” (thurakit chumchon) through programs of village funds, people’s bank, and OTOP movement, which adopted an approach to tackling poverty that was quite different from that adopted by previous governments. Promotion of the grass-roots economy also aimed to court votes in rural areas in favor of TRT in the next election (February 2005). This is the precise reason why Thaksin emphasized populist-oriented policies in his first government between 2001 and 2004.

Criticism of Thaksinocracy

The above three elements combine with each other to characterize the Thaksinomics. However, Thaksin’s political style was attacked by mass media and academic circles for leading to “policy corruption” (Pasuk and Baker 2004), “prime ministerialization” ­(Bhidhaya 2004), “Thaksinocracy” (Thaksinathipatai) against democracy (Rungsan 2005), “Thaksinization of Thailand” (McCargo and Ukrist 2005), “Thaksin regime” (rabop ­Thaksin) (Nariphon 2006), and new nepotism or revival of family politics. Three aspects of these criticisms are worth noting.

Firstly, they criticized Thaksin’s politics for being a “business of politics” (Pasuk and Baker 2004; 2009). Although Thaksin did not directly involve himself in illegal activities, he was criticized on the grounds that he depended heavily on money rather than the traditional Thai idea of justice or “thamma.”

Secondly, many scholars also criticized the increasing concentration of power under his term as well as his dictatorial behavior. For example, Rungsan Thanaphonphan argued that while a CEO in a company was usually supervised and monitored by both the board of directors and shareholders, Thaksin did not brook any criticism from the outside. Accordingly, he was not a CEO of state in a real sense, but a one-man-show type of taoke (owner-operator) of the state (Rungsan 2005, 168–175).

Finally, they criticized Thaksin’s politics for reviving nepotism. As a matter of fact, Thaksin appointed a lot of family members to key posts: his younger sister Yaowaret became chairperson of the National Women Association; another younger sister Yaopa was the clique leader of TRT; Somchai Wongsawat, Yaopa’s husband, was appointed permanent secretary of Justice and the prime minister (September–December 2008); and Priaopan Damapong, his wife’s elder brother, was given the number-two position at the National Police Office.9) Thaksin also appointed two cousins (Chaiyasit and Uthai) to the key posts of Army Commander-in-Chief and the permanent secretary of Defense, respectively (Athiwat 2003; Tamada 2005). It is fair to say that such nepotism in personnel management contributed to fueling anti-Thaksin sentiments among the military group as well as among the middle classes in the Bangkok Metropolitan area.

Economic Performance of the Thaksin Government

Before looking at the socio-economic policies of the Thaksin government, let me review briefly the economic performance of Thailand. Table 1 compares the targets of Ninth Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan (2001–2006) formulated by the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) and actual figures in particular targets. Table 1’s actual figures concerning economic growth rate, inflation, fiscal balance, and job creation show that the Thai economy was performing better than NESDB’s forecasts and targets. Contrary to pessimistic projection by Thai economists on growth rates (2–2.5%), Thailand had achieved over 5% growth since 2002. Such economic recovery from the crisis in 1997 has contributed not only to rapid increase of private consumption but also to the nation-wide support of the people in favor of Thaksin and TRT.10)

Table 1 Targets of the Ninth Five-Year Plan and Actual Performance, 2001–04


Two characteristics distinguish the Thaksin government’s management of macro-economy compared with previous governments. First, Thaksin attempted to reduce public external debt and its ratio to nominal GDP, and obtain budget resources from the national revenue, profits of state enterprises, profits from privatization of state enterprises, and private investments. In spite of the fact that the NESDB projected public debt ratio against nominal GDP as 60% and over in the Ninth Five-Year Plan and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) requested recipient countries to meet 55% as the maximum standard, Thailand had successfully reduced this figure to less than 50% by 2003. When Thaksin operated his own private business (Shin Corp.), he preferred direct corporate finance based on issuance of stocks and corporate bonds to indirect corporate finance based on banking loans. In exact accordance with the strategy of corporate finance, Thaksin insisted on applying the principle of non-borrowing or stand-alone approach to the financial and fiscal management of a state.

Second, there was an increase in state revenue, which was by far larger than initially estimated. After the currency crisis in 1997, state revenue had dramatically dropped, and the Ministry of Finance and the Bureau of the Budget were naturally inclined to adopt conservative stance in estimating national revenue. They therefore tried to control budget allocation in conjunction with conservative revenue projection. After the economic recovery, however, actual revenue has always exceeded initial estimates, and in turn granted additional budget resources to the Thaksin government.11)

Additional revenue came from an increase in collection of corporate taxes, value added taxes, and excise taxes owing to economic recovery during the term of the ­Thaksin government. Along with the increase in tax revenues, an equally important development was the computerization of the state revenue collection system, which not only helped speed up tax collection procedures but also minimized unintentional failure in tax collection in the fields of excise taxes and value-added taxes. Additional revenues were separated from the ordinary proceeding of budget allocation and were eventually placed under the direct control of the cabinet, in other words the prime minister. Such free-hand revenue naturally became significant fiscal sources for the Thaksin government to promote money-consuming populist-oriented policies. I will return to this problem in section VI of this article.

Changes in Policy-Making Process

Four Core Economic Agencies and Technocrats

After seizing political power, Thaksin significantly changed the process of policy-making. To clarify the difference in policy-making process between the Thaksin government and previous ones, let me briefly review the role of major economic agencies engaged in formulating and implementing macro-economic policies in Thailand.12)

As Warr and Bhanupong have already argued, there are four core economic agencies in Thailand: the National Economic and Social Development Board or NESDB, which is the government’s main economic planning agency; the Fiscal Policy Office or FPO of the Ministry of Finance for the management of public finance; the Bureau of the Budget or BOB of the Prime Minister Office for the estimation of state revenue; and the Bank of Thailand or BOT for financial arrangement (Warr and Bhanupong 1996, 69–70; see Fig. 1 in Suehiro 2005, 17).

These four core agencies have played a preeminent role in the process of national budget allocation since the 1960s, and have been fully responsible for the stable development of the macro-economy. The NESDB principally screens the bottom-up investment plans of each ministry and department in reference to the targets of the Five-Year Plans, while the BOB investigates revenue aspects. The FPO proposes the possible government expenditure, consistent with the monetary policy of the BOT. The four core agencies have traditionally cooperated with each other through their personal networks under the leadership of the distinguished governor of the BOT, Dr. Puey Ungpakorn, and have maintained their policy independence from the political influences of military forces ­(Suehiro 2005, 22–28).

When Thailand experienced long-term economic recession in the early 1980s, the interrelationship among the four core agencies changed. Since the Prem Tinsulanond government applied for standby credit from the IMF and structural adjustment loans (SALs) from the World Bank between 1981 and 1983, the NESDB and the FPO began to play more important roles in managing and monitoring public external debt from these international organizations (Muscat 1994, Ch. 5). In addition to the expanded role of the two agencies, the Prem government also established three important institutions to implement macro-economic policies. These three are the National Public Debt Com­mittee chaired by the finance minister; the Economic Ministers Meetings, which exclusively discussed economic matters before the regular cabinet meeting; and the Joint Public and Private Sector Consultative Committees (JPPCCs, or Kho.Ro.Oo.) to argue jointly current economic problems (Anek 1992, Ch. 4; Suehiro 2005, 32–35). At the same time, the NESDB was expected to serve as a coordinating organ for these national committees in addition to its original task of planning the Five-Year Plan.

When Chatichai Choonhavan (Chart Thai Party) won the 1988 election, he established the first political party-based coalition government in Thailand. But he hardly changed the existing policy-making system. It is true that the Finance Minister was not appointed any more from qualified persons of the Ministry of Finance, but was picked from the ruling political party. And the Finance Minister sometimes intervened in both fiscal policies of the FPO and monetary policies of the BOT (Suehiro 2005, 37–39; Apichat 2002). But there was no noticeable change in the process of policy-making. Technocrats at the four core agencies could still continue to manage macro-economy as long as they did not touch on the sensitive business interests of political party leaders and royalist members.

Changes in the Chuan Government: Politics of Public Hearings

The currency crisis of 1997, however, changed the roles of the four core agencies. The major developments in economic policy-making under the second Chuan government (1997–2000) may be summarized as follows.

First of all, since the government decided to request standby credits from the IMF and SALs from the World Bank to overcome the crisis, the two international financial organizations came to play a decisive role in formulating the economic reforms of ­Thailand.

Second, the Finance Minister, Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda, was given supreme power to control the financial sector and to negotiate with international financial organizations as well as Japanese government agencies.13) Tarrin was the key person of the Democrat Party, which was the ruling party of coalition government, and was former president of the Siam Commercial Bank.

Third, the policy role of the FPO was diminished, in comparison with its role in the era of the Prem government. The Public External Debt Section was separated from the FPO to independently handle the growing loans from the IMF, the World Bank, and Japanese government. Along with this organizational restructuring and transfer of ­several sections, the number of FPO staff was cut from 250 to 150 by 1999. Instead, the Economic Ministers Meetings began to play more important roles. The meetings which were held every Monday ahead of the Tuesday cabinet meeting eventually made the final decisions on economic matters (Suehiro 2005, 44).

Fourth, the Chuan government increased the number of the Deputy Minister (Phu chuai rattamontri-wa) from 8 to 24 persons in addition to 4 Deputy Prime Ministers and 13 ministers in order to invite influential political party members into the coalition govern­ment.14) The posts of the Deputy Ministers in several ministries such as the Ministry of Transport and Communications were very attractive for party leaders seeking political rents.

Finally, the Chuan government placed importance on public hearings in the process of formulating nation-wide policies such as a Five-Year Plan, the Social Investment Fund (SIF), and the Industrial Restructuring Plan (IRP). This policy is due in part to the ide­ology of the 1997 Constitution which aimed at promoting people’s participation in politics and in part to the political agenda of the Democrat Party which promised further democratization in Thailand (Suehiro 2000). Patcharee Siroros of Thammasat University has characterized the Chuan government’s politics as a “politics of public hearings.”15)

In brief, the major players in economic policy-making diversified into four groups: 1) international financial organizations (IMF and the World Bank); 2) economic technocrats in the NESDB and the Ministry of Finance; 3) particular political party leaders in the positions of the finance minister, industry minister, and the deputy ministers in economic affairs; and 4) participants in the public hearings. Each group was inclined to seek its own interest without mutual cooperation and policy consistency. Such fragmentation of decision-making became the object of Thaksin’s criticisms, which targeted the structural weakness of the Thai public sector.

Thaksinocracy in Policy-Making: Prime Ministerialization

The Thaksin government appeared to have aimed at completely changing the traditional policy-making system, despite the carryover of human resources from the Chatichai governments.16) The new institutional elements may be summarized as follows.

First, Thaksin abolished the regular meetings of the Economic Ministers on Monday, and replaced them with the meetings of the Strategy Committee17) to argue national urgent matters. The Committee reportedly consisted of Thaksin himself and leading figures from the Army, the National Police Office, and business circle, but there is no precise information on its membership.

Second, he set up the five Screening Committees (later increased to seven ones) at the first cabinet meeting on March 6, 2001, and appointed five Deputy Prime Ministers as chairpersons of each committee to examine particular policy issues. Important policy proposals from responsible ministries including the NESDB were first submitted to these committees, and then discussed before final decisions were reached at the cabinet ­meetings.

Third, he abolished the public hearings, and replaced them with the practice of direct dialogue with the people through his own speeches at the government-sponsored radio (FM 92.5) every Saturday from 8:00 to 8:30 pm. Between April 28, 2001 and August 19, 2006, his radio speeches continued to convey his political thought along with explanations of decisions of cabinet meetings.18) Thaksin appears to have put more importance on such type of direct dialogue with the people rather than on time-consuming discussion in the House of Representatives.

Fourth, he appointed TRT members as the Vice Ministers (Rong rattamontri-wa, non-cabinet members), in addition to the Deputy Ministers (Phu chuai rattamontri-wa, cabinet members) because the 1997 Constitution strictly regulated the number of cabinet members (reduced from 47 to 36 persons). The Thaksin government is the first one to be elected under the 1997 Constitution. To overcome limitations to the number of cabinet members, he created the new post of Vice Minister and appointed influential TRT party members to this post to supervise ministers and technocrats. It is reported that he obtained this idea from the Japanese system of having parliamentary vice ministers (seimu-jikan).19)

Institutional reform in policy-making system contributed to the strong leadership of the prime minister. This movement is clearly evident in Table 2, which compares the distribution of cases of policy submissions to the cabinet meetings in two periods of the Chuan government and the Thaksin government. Computing the average frequency of policy submissions to the cabinet meeting per month, we see that the Thaksin government tackled more cases (100.8 cases against 95.3 cases). And the role of the Prime Minister Office increased in the Thaksin government (19.1% against 17.6%). But the differences in these figures are not so impressive. Rather we should note the differences in major agencies responsible for submitting policies inside the Prime Minister Office. As Table 2 clearly shows, three groups or agencies of the Deputy Prime Ministers who chaired the Screening Committees, the Prime Minister Secretary Office, and the Cabinet Secretary Office became to play more significant roles in submitting policies.

Table 2 Policy Submissions to the Cabinet Meetings, Classified by Ministries and Institutions under the Chuan Administration and the Thaksin Administration


Looking at the increasing percentage of the NESDB (from 1.3% to 2.6%) in Table 2, some may argue in favor of the revival of the four core agencies. In actuality, however, Thaksin frequently ordered the NESDB to formulate new policies in strict accordance with the state strategies, as well as the ordinary task of planning the Five-Year Plan, which resulted in an increase in the number of cases of policy submissions from the NESDB. Ironically, increasing cases reflect the diminished role of the NESDB. Ministry of Finance also reduced its role in exchange of increasing role of the Deputy Prime ­Ministers.

Aside from restructuring the cabinet, Thaksin also preferred to invite formal and informal groups outside of the government. These groups include:

1) Members of the TRT Economic Policy Formulating Committee including Pansak Vinyaratn (private policy advisor to Prime Minister Thaksin), Somkid Jatusripitak (finance minister), Suranan Vejjajiva (spokesman), Kittidej Sutsukorn, Kitti ­Limsakul, and Pramon Kunakasem

2) Policy advisors to the prime minister such as Pansak, who was a journalist, and Phrommin Lertsuridej, who was also appointed the Secretary-General of the Prime Minister Secretary Office in February 2001

3) Policy advisors to the finance minister such as Chaiyawat Wibulsawasdi, the former Governor of the BOT (1997–98), and Olarn Chaiprawat, who was the former president of the Siam Commercial Bank

4) Influential deputy prime ministers who chaired the Screening Committees

5) Members of the Strategy Committee

6) Leading figures in business circle such as Dhanin Chearavanont, the chairman of the CP Group, and Boonsithi Chokwatana, the head of Saha (SPI) Group20)

Fig. 1 shows the whole structure of the policy-making under the Thaksin government. Fig. 1 suggests the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister alongside the exclusion of bureaucratic influence from the decision-making ­process. Thaksin apparently aimed to replace the Thai bureaucratic polity with a prime minister-led politics or Thaksinocracy.


Fig. 1 Policy-Making Structure and Major Players in the Thaksin Administration, 2005

Sources: Interview research by the author in Bangkok from 2001 to 2005.

Dual-Track Policies

Populist-oriented Policy

As discussed in section II, Thaksin adopted dual-track policies, which consist of promotion of the grass-roots economy in rural areas (the first track) and the enhancement of national competitiveness of big capitalists in urban areas (the second track). After establishing a new government, he favored the first track over the second one. This is in part because economic recovery from the Asian crisis became an urgent task for the country and in part because the first track was more essential for Thaksin and TRT to attract the support of the people. For these reasons, Thaksin announced nine urgent economic and social programs in his policy speech at the Diet on February 27, 2001.

These nine programs include: 1) three years’ moratorium on farmers’ debt; 2) provision of village funds; 3) establishment of people’s banks; 4) establishment of new government-sponsored SMEs banks; 5) introduction of universal health services (known as “30-baht medical services”); 6) solution of non-performing loans through the Thai Asset Management Corporation (TAMC); 7) privatization of state enterprises; 8) eradication of drugs; and 9) anti-corruption campaign (Samnak Lekhathikan Khana Rattamontri 2002, 91–95). In addition to policies 1) to 5), Thaksin also introduced two well-known programs of OTOP and a “Ban Ua-arthon” project which provided lower-income households with cheaper housing facilities. Seven of the policies were originally part of the TRT campaign promises in the general election and became core projects of the first track or the promotion of the grass-roots economy.

In July 2001, the Thaksin government announced the “mid-term economic policies 2001–2006” to the public. Before the cabinet meeting, NESDB and the Fiscal Policy Office prepared their original plan which was principally based on the Ninth Five-Year Plan (2001–2005). But this plan did not fully reflect Thaksin’s policy speech in February. Glancing at the original plan, Thaksin got angry and immediately ordered the NESDB to revise it in accordance with his policy speech. Consequently, the revised agenda was submitted to a cabinet meeting in July, which included all the programs in both prime minister’s policy speech and the TRT campaign promise.21) In Thaksin’s view, the NESDB ought to follow the state strategy addressed by the prime minister rather than the targets of the Five-Year Plan set by the former government. This incident symbolically highlights the declining autonomy of the NESDB in policy-making.

Table 3 summarizes the major programs in the first-track policies. All the programs started within 2001 and total expenditure amounted to 300 billion baht, or the equivalent of 30% of total budget allocation in FY2002. As the table shows, each program achieved a visible outcome, which contributed to the huge popularity of the first Thaksin government. On the other hand, the enormous amount of expenditure for these populist-­oriented policies provoked severe criticism from the mass media on the grounds that these programs were undertaken without ordinary budget allocation (off-budget system). In section VI, I will return to the important question of how the Thaksin government financed these policies under the existing budget system.

Table 3 Populist-oriented Policies under the Thaksin Administration (As of 2005)


Shift of Policy Priority to the Second Track

In 2002, the Thaksin government expanded its policy objectives to the second track or the National Competitiveness Plan (NCP), in which the government selected five major sectors (food processing, automobiles, fashion industry, tourism industry, and development of software services) as targets and planned to enhance international competitiveness in the world market. What should be quickly noted here is the fact that the previous Chuan government had already adopted a similar plan, the Industrial Restructuring Plan (IRP). IRP was formulated by the Ministry of Industry in collaboration with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and Japan International ­Cooperation Agency (JICA), and selected 11 strategic industries for promotion. But Thaksin completely neglected this plan, and ordered the NESDB to submit a new plan in collaboration with Michael Porter, a professor of the Harvard Business School (NESDB 2003c).22)

Unlike the IRP which focused on the improvement of efficiency and productivity of manufacturing sector through the development of supporting industries (Japanese ideas), NCP imported key concepts such as innovation and industrial clustering based on the policy advice of Porter as well as textbooks in the American business schools (Porter 2003). The complete text of NCP was submitted by the NESDB and approved by the cabinet meeting in October 2003. Although NESDB was officially designated the responsible agency of NCP, the actual people in charge were Porter and the SASIN which was the most influential business school in Thailand. NESDB could no longer take initiative as a primary planner, and merely served as a coordinator for planning.

After the general election in February 2005, the second Thaksin government explicitly shifted its policy priority from the first track in favor of the people to the second track in favor of domestic and foreign investors. Since TRT had won 75% of seats in the House of Representatives, Thaksin did not need to pay special attention to the masses as he had to do before. For instance, in May 2005, the Ministry of Finance announced “Mega Projects” with a total cost of 1,800 billion baht and appealed to foreign investors to invest in attractive mass transportation projects in Bangkok Metropolitan area. In the same period, Thaksin also ordered the NESDB to formulate the 10th Five-Year Plan (October 2006–September 2011), which emphasized profit-making agriculture on the basis of ­bio-technology and provincial cluster development plans based on the CEO ­Governors. Unlike the Ninth Five-Year Plan, the new plan accorded less importance to traditional policy objectives such as poverty reduction in rural areas (World Bank 2001).23) From the middle of 2005 onward, Thaksin also accelerated the privatization of state enterprises to attract more foreign capital to the local stock market. All the programs were integrated into state strategies to modernize the Kingdom of Thailand (KTMF) (Suehiro 2008).

From Thaksin’s viewpoint, there are two major obstacles to KTMF’s ambitious strategy aimed at transforming Thailand into a modern state. One is the traditional bureaucracy, including government officers’ culture, and the other is the existing budget system under the strict control of line ministries. Consequently, he focused his political targets on the two major fields of the public sector and the budget system.

Reform of the Public Sector

Thaksin’s Views on Traditional Bureaucracy

The first obstacle to Thaksin’s reform is the old-fashioned bureaucracy. According to his observation, Thai bureaucracy has too many agencies and there is no organic linkage in activity between organizations. Thai public services are too slow despite global capitalism’s “economy of speed.”24) He also severely criticized the traditional bureaucracy because it lacked efficiency in delivering public services, had no strategy in policy-­making, and lacked competition in the work place. Rather it merely encouraged bonding among its members and a conservative attitude against any criticism coming from the outside.

On September 11, 2002, Thaksin addressed the issue of “Reform of a country, reform of the public sector” in the prime minister’s residence. In this speech, he disclosed the fact that he ordered the Prime Minister Office to disband around 300 out of 600 national committees, and revealed his plan to reorganize existing government agencies into more networking-based and agenda-based organizations (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 291–308). More important, he emphasized in the same speech the necessity of reforming traditional bureaucratic culture and government officers’ consciousness. He claimed: “Most important task for us is to reform the old culture of work together into a new one at the levels of government officers, the relationship between public sector and a country, and the relationship between public sector and the people. We need a new culture of work together. We cannot make the excuse that we have poor performance because our system is out-of-date. The era is always changing and it requests us a reform” (ibid., 300–301, underscoring by the author).

On this account, he severely condemned the out-of-date system (rabop la-samai) and called for the introduction of modern public services on the basis of advanced tech­nology (e-Government), agenda-based organizations, explicit visions (wisaithat), well-organized strategy, and competition among government officers. Based on such views, he launched the reform of traditional bureaucracy by setting up the Public Sector Develop­ment Commission (PSDC) in October 2002 (Nakharin 2008). Before examining the activity of the PSDC, let me briefly review the structure of government officials and the mechanism of personnel management in the public sector in order to help the reader to understand the real cause behind the Thaksin’s reform.

The Structure of Government Officials in Thailand

Fig. 2 shows the category of public personnel and the distribution of civil servants and employees by the category. Figures on the basis of my own research in 1996 are out of date for the current situation. However, there are no comparable figures and the present system principally follows the same category. Therefore, I employ the 1996 survey to depict the structure of Thai bureaucracy (Suehiro 2006).


Fig. 2 Structure of Bureaucracy in Thailand (1995)

Source: Interview research by the author at the Ko.Pho in Bangkok, April 1996.

Public personnel (2,586,000 persons) consists of five major categories: political ­officials (776 persons); permanent officials (1,169,000 persons); departmental employees (695,000 persons); local officials (421,000 persons); and staff and employees of 23 state enterprises (300,000 persons). Among them, permanent officials belong to a category of government officials in a broader sense. Permanent officials are further classified into seven sub-categories including police officers and prosecutors. Among them, three groups belong to a category of government officials in a narrower sense. They include 530, 000 teachers at public schools under the auspice of the Teacher Council, 380,000 civil servants in central public agencies under the auspice of the Civil Service Commission (CSC), and 49,000 professors and lecturers under the auspice of the University Official Commission. Here, I focus on the second group of civil servants under the CSC.

All the civil servants are recruited through standard examinations adopted by the CSC and otherwise through particular examinations conducted by several high-ranked ministries (Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs). After entering public agencies, they are all ranked in the P (position) and C (classification) table according to their final educational qualifications. For instance, a person with educational level of high school or vocational school is ranked as C1, while a new graduate from a university is ranked as C3-2. A Ph.D. holder starts his/her career at C5-4. The PC table is completely linked to the salary table, and every person is automatically promoted by at least one rank each year.

What is unique to Thailand is that the government principally does not employ mid-career persons from the private sector. Those who desire to enter into the public agency must start their careers in the same way as fresh students in accordance with educational qualification. On the other hand, all the civil servants are guaranteed employment until the retirement age or 60 years old (since 1953), and they can equally enjoy the right to receive government pension, medical health insurance, and other fringe benefits. In this sense, personnel management of government officials has been basically designed as a closed organization on the basis of service years.

Civil servants are also ranked by the job and post classifications from C1 to C11 and P11 as illustrated in Table 4. For example, C7 is given to a section chief, while C8 to a director general of department. Between C1 to C4 (or C5), each person is automatically promoted according to his/her years of service. From C6 and over, performance evaluation becomes more important in the screening process because of limits in the number of available posts. Indeed, civil servants with C7 account for 46,000 persons, equivalent to 16% of those ranked with C6 (280,000 persons). Finally, a group of C8 and over belongs to an elite class in the public sector of Thailand, and account for a mere 2.3% of the total number of civil servants.25)

Table 4 Distribution of Government Officers by Position and Classification (P.C.), 1994


Promotion to the High Ranked Posts

Apart from the cases of director generals of the Department of Customs, secretary generals of the NESDB and governors of the Bank of Thailand (BOT), most of civil servants enter a particular department and are promoted to higher posts in the same department. For director generals of the Department of Customs until the 1970s, several persons were recruited from the National Police Office (Krom Sulakakorn 1994, 11–31), while both governors of the BOT and secretary generals of the NESDB until the end of the 1980s were appointed from among the elites of the Ministry of Finance (Suehiro 2005, 58–59). Except for these cases, we see very few cases of personal transfer across different ministries, and even across different departments. Personnel changes across at departments are basically confined to persons who will be promoted to the posts of director general, superintendent, and the permanent secretary.26) In addition to the strict rule of internally-promotion, three other principles seem to characterize personnel management in higher ranked posts of Thai bureaucracy.

First, a permanent secretary is expected to have occupied the highest posts of important departments in each ministry. These posts include the Department of ­Comptroller General, the Department of Customs and the Fiscal Policy Office (FPO) for the Ministry of Finance; the Department of Foreign Trade and/or the Department of Internal Trade for the Ministry of Commerce; the Department of Medical Services and/or the Department of Health for the Ministry of Public Health; and the Department of Industrial Economics and/or the Department of Industrial Promotion for the Ministry of Industry.

Second, the tenure of director general and permanent secretary is neither regulated by law nor determined by an implicit consensus, as is the case in Japan. Tenure is frequently determined by the will of superiors such as the permanent secretary and the ability of candidate. Consequently, the period of tenure varies very widely between one month and 10 years. From the 1990s onward, however, tenure seems to converge into two or three years, and the person is customarily appointed on October 1, and resigns on September 30, in accordance with the Thai fiscal year.

Third, prior to the 1970s, there was frequent evidence of a “fast track system.” If a candidate had a good family background (royal or aristocrats family members), high educational qualification outside of Thailand, and prominent performance, he/she could obtain higher post faster than others. It was not difficult to find permanent secretaries in their mere 40s. Since the mid-1980s, however, the age of appointment to the post of permanent secretary began to concentrate in the range of 57 to 59 years old, or 1 to 3 years before retirement. This fact implies that the promotion to the post of permanent secretary has been standardized in a hierarchical structure.

These characteristics have contributed to creating the stable structure of Thai bureaucracy. As I mentioned above, civil servants with lower ranks are automatically promoted according to their years of service, while an elite class with higher ranks is promoted on the basis of performance evaluation and good human relationship inside a particular organization. These rules naturally produce characteristics specific to the Thai bureaucracy, notably an inward-looking and conservative culture that is impervious to criticism from the outside. This is precisely the point that Thaksin attacked in the ­process of his public sector reform.

Who Were Promoted to Permanent Secretaries?

To test and confirm the rule of determining the promotion system, let me employ two case studies of the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) as examples. Table 5 summarizes the career path of each person who occupied the permanent secretary (PS) of the MOF between 1975 and 2005. Major facts derived from the table together with my research on PS’s educational qualification are as follows.

Table 5 Career of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, 1975–2005


1) The majority of these PSMOF was holders of Ph.D. or Master Degree (Economics), and was educated in prestigious universities in the United States and Europe such as Michigan University (Amnuay), University of Illinois (Panas), University of London (Suparat), and Cambridge University (Jatumongkol).

2) Except for Aran (1993–95) who was transferred from the Ministry of Commerce, all the persons were promoted internally within the MOF.

3) For the cases of Amnuay (1975–77) and Panas (1982–92), PSMOF were promoted with the ages of 46 and 50, and the tenure of Panas covered 10 years. However, since the period of Bandit (1992–93), a “fast track system” was replaced by a more standardized system in which the PS was appointed to the post three to four years before retirement, and his tenure was confined to two to three years.

4) Before being appointed to the post of PSMOF, most of people had stints as director generals in at least three different mainstream departments of Comptroller ­General, Customs, and FPO. In recent years, main departments have shifted to the Department of Revenue and the Department of Excise due to the increasing authority in revenue estimates.

A comparison of the cases of PSMOF and PSMOI reveals both similarities and ­differences in their promotion systems (see Table 6).

Table 6 Career of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, 1957–2005


1) Concerning educational background, based on my research, all the people of PSMOI were educated in local (not foreign) prestigious universities such as ­Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University. And all the persons were further educated in the National College of Defense.

2) Most of these PSMOI were promoted step by step from district chiefs (nai amphoe) to governors of multiple provinces to director generals of mainstream departments such as the Department of Government (Krom Kan Pok-khrong) and the Department of Local Government. The career path for PSMOI seems to be more institutionalized than in the case of the Ministry of Finance.

3) Except for Chanasak (1997–2002), the tenures of all the persons were short (one to two years). Furthermore, appointment to PSMOI was conducted in accordance with regular personnel changes starting in October of each year.

The cases of PSMOI suggest that personnel promotion of the high ranked officials has been completely dominated by the explicit rule of the line ministry. Even Interior Minister must follow this rule in personnel management.

Thaksin’s Reforms of the Public Sector

Since October 2002, the Thaksin government embarked on ambitious reform of the public sector in three different directions. These reforms include: 1) reorganization of government agencies on the basis of the agenda; 2) changes in personnel management on the basis of meritocracy rather than seniority system; and 3) improvement of public services according to the documented four year plan in each agency.

Concerning the reorganization of the public sector, Thaksin ordered the restructuring of 14 ministries (plus the Prime Minister Office or PMO) with 125 departments into 19 ministries (plus PMO) with 156 departments.27) Contrary to the original plan of downsizing public organizations, Thaksin was forced to increase the number of government agencies. This is in part because he had to deal with the potential dissatisfaction of government officials by increasing the number of posts (departments), and in part because he planned to reconstruct government organization more strategically by allocating a particular agency for a particular agenda.

For instance, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environments (MSTE: four departments and five offices) was reorganized into the Ministry of Science and Technology (one department and three offices). At the same time, the Department of Energy Promotion belonging to the former MSTE was transferred to a new ministry (the Ministry of Energy), while two agencies of the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion and the Office of Environmental Policy were integrated into another new ministry (the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment). Each agency was attached to an existing or new ministry according to its own agenda, while a lot of departments and offices were set up to undertake new state strategies such as the Department of Development of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine in the Ministry of Public Health, the Department of Intellectual Property in the Ministry of Commerce, and the Office of Welfare Promotion, Protection and Empowerment of Vulnerable Groups in the new Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

Concerning personnel management, Thaksin introduced a new system or promotion based on the principle of meritocracy. He empowered not the Permanent Secretary but the Minister to directly appoint director generals, and made it possible to transfer able persons across at different ministries, or to appoint younger persons regardless of the traditional order of P (position) and C (classification) system. Thus, in September 2004, Jakramon Pasukwanich, who was the former secretary general of the NESDB, was transferred to the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Industry, while Ampol Kittiampol, a director general in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, was newly appointed to serve as secretary general of the NESDB. Naris Chaiyasut who was the former rector of the Thammasat University, was appointed director general of Fiscal Policy Office over possible candidates from inside the Ministry of Finance. At the level of director general, a lot of persons were selected by their abilities or their connections with TRT. Such system of promotion undoubtedly had a great impact on traditional order and familial relationship in each office, and in turn stoked strong resistance among government officials (Nakharin 2008).

Finally, the Thaksin government set up the Office of Public Sector Development Com­mission (OPSDC) by appointing Vishnu Krua-ngam as its chairman on October 3, 2002.28) Major members include Bowornsak Uwanno, Chai-anan Samudavanija, and Orapin Sopchokchai, who had worked for the reform of public sector in the Chatichai government (1988–91) (OPSDC 2005a, 8–9). In May 2003, the cabinet meeting decided to approve an action plan submitted by the OPSDC which aimed to reduce by 30–50% the steps or the time needed for particular public service in each agency. The OPSDC document reported that the Department of Land Transport successfully reduced the time of issuing payment certification for automobile taxes from 30 minutes to 7 minutes, while the National Police Office reduced the time of arranging the formalities for going abroad from 15 days to 7 days (ibid., 12–13).

In 2003, the OPSDC adopted the “Strategic Plan for Public Sector Development 2003–2007.” This strategic plan consists of four major targets: 1) reform of the role, activities and the size of public sector (e-Service, service link, downsizing of organization etc.); 2) democratization of public services (people’s audit etc.); 3) quality improvement of public services in order to meet the real needs of the people; and 4) capacity building of government officials such as the “I AM READY” program (ibid., 11). “I AM READY” is the acronym of the slogan, “Integrity, Activeness, Morality, Relevancy, Efficiency, Accountability, Democracy and Yield” (ibid., 57–58). In parallel to the NCP which used American concepts from business schools, OPSDC also preferred to use English-­language key concepts from the school of modern public management developed in Australia and Europe.29)

In 2005, OPSDC accelerated the reform of public services on the basis of the “Action Plan of Public Services Development 2005–2008” under the second Thaksin government (2005–08). This action plan requested each agency to define the target, strategy, cooperation with other agencies, concrete plan to improve the efficiency of public services, and budget needed in the four-year plan (OPSDC 2005b; Samnakngan Ngop-praman 2006). The Action Plan of 2005–2008 had a substantial impact on both working style of government officials (overtime work etc.) and the existing system of budget allocation under the control of line ministries. Accordingly, let me move to another reform of the Thaksin government, namely, reform of the budget system.

Reform of the Budget System

Strategic Performance Based Budget System (SPBBS)

Another obstacle to Thaksin’s state reforms is the existing budget system in which most of the budget has been put under the direct control of responsible ministries ­according to their functions. In other words, responsible (line) ministries at first submit project proposals in conjunction with the targets set by a Five-Year Plan, while the four core agencies of the NESDB, FPO, BOT, and the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) consult with each other to decide on the budget allocation for each bottom-up project. For instance, in the Chuan government, 93.5 billion out of the total of 910 billion baht in FY 2001 were allocated to projects of local development, which include the “Development of Potentiality in Rural and Community People Program” (67.5 billion baht). It is reported that eight ministries and two government agencies were responsible for these projects, and necessary funds were delivered to each project through line ministry (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief FY2001, 94–95). Such budget allocation typically shows the traditional style politics of clemency and charity targeting the rural poor people.

In addition, the procedures of budget allocation must follow the 1959 Act of the Budget. This act was formulated by Puey Ungpakorn (Governor of BOT and Director of BOB in that day) and his associates in order to strictly separate central budget between investment expenditures based on economic planning and ordinary expenditures including personnel expenses (Suehiro 2005). In 1982, the Prem government changed Puey’s policy (British style) to the Planning Programming Budget System (American style) or PPBS for the sake of improving the consistency and the effectiveness of budget planning (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief FY1982). Introduction of the PPBS was a part of policy conditionality required of the Thai government by the World Bank in exchange of its structural adjustment loans (SALs).

Twenty years later, Thaksin ordered the BOB to replace the PPBS by a new policy of Strategic Performance Based Budget System or the SPBBS (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 324–325). The new budget policy shifted the procedure of budget allocation from the bottom-up approach from line ministries to the top-down approach from the prime minister and the ruling party. Following the policy of the SPBBS, the BOB announced three major principles in budget planning: 1) putting priority on fiscal support of promoting the autonomy of local governments; 2) replacing function-based budget allocation by agenda-based one; and 3) introducing a four-year budget plan (FY2005–2008) for each agency in correspondence to the tenure of the second Thaksin government.30) All public agencies were forced to follow these principles, and to demonstrate definitely the necessity of each particular project with reference to state strategies addressed by the prime minister. Such policies are completely interconnected with the shift of policy-making system from a Five-Year Plan to state strategies as mentioned in section III.

Changes in the Pattern of Budget Allocation

Table 7 traces the budget allocation by functions, in the period of between FY1991 and FY2011, including the period of Thaksin government (from FY2002 to FY 2006). According to the policy of the BOB, functions of budget allocation are classified into four major categories: 1) general administration or general government services (general public services, defense matters, public order, and security); 2) community and social services (education, public health, social security, housing, religions, etc.); 3) economic services (energy, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, communications, etc.); and 4) mis­cellaneous and unclassified items (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief FY2006, 62–65). Looking at the table, we can easily find remarkable changes in the period of the Thaksin government.

Table 7 Budget Allocation by Functions in Thailand, FY 1991–2011

(Units: Million baht, %)


First of all, the category of “national defense” showed a rapid decline in terms of percentage of allocation, which decreased from 16.0% in FY1991 through 8.9% in FY2000 to merely 6.3% in FY2006. Since the size of the total budget has increased by threefold in the corresponding period, the Ministry of Defense could maintain the same level in terms of actual value (see Fig. 3 in later). But it is apparent that the issue of national defense has been less important for the Thaksin government. In fact, he frequently addressed in his speeches that “the cold war regime collapsed and the era of competition for military expansion ended as well. We (Thailand) were facing a new era of economic competition in the world capitalism” (Shukan Tai Keizai, January 30, 2006). Such perception has naturally angered the military group, and became one of the leading causes behind the coup against Thaksin in September 2006.

Second, in contrast to declining role of defense matters, the percentage of social security has steadily increased from 3.1% in FY1991 to 5.4% in FY2000 to 7.0% in FY2006. This trend suggests that the Thaksin government aimed to develop a welfare state in keeping with Thailand’s economic status as a middle-income country. In line with this idea, Thaksin attempted to introduce universal health services scheme and nation-wide pension scheme, comparable to those in advanced countries.31)

Third, contrary to our expectation, the percentage of economic services, particularly transportation and communications, does not show a notable increase because the ­Thaksin government sought to reduce public investments, and instead, promote private investments through local stock market. This policy was expressed strategically through strict restrictions on public foreign borrowings and privatization of profitable state enterprises.32)

On the other hand, Table 8 summarizes the distribution of budget expenditures from the viewpoint of responsible institutions. Institutions are basically classified into six groups: central funds; ministries (19 ministries and the PMO in FY2006); independent public agencies (13 agencies); independent bodies under the 1997 Constitution (8 bodies); state enterprises (22 enterprises); and revolving funds (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief FY2006, 75–86).

Table 8 Budget Allocation by Institutions in Thailand, FY 1991–2011

(Units: Million baht, %)


The most prominent changes in budget allocation in the Thaksin government are the decline of ministries and increase of the central fund in terms of their percentages. Percentage of ministries had usually accounted for 84 to 87% of the total budget allocation until the FY1998. In FY1999, the National Police Office was separated from the Ministry of Interior, and was transferred to the status of independent public agency. Its budget or 38.1 billion baht accounted for 4.6% of the total amount in FY1999. If the National Police Office were included into ministries, line ministries continue to account for 84.9%, not 80.3% in the table.33) However, in the period of Thaksin government, the percentage of ministries dramatically decreased from 80.3% in FY1999 to 62.8% in FY2004 and 65.9% in FY2006. In contrast, central fund increased its percentage from 9.3% to 22.8% and 18.8% in corresponding fiscal years.

The central fund or ngop klang is originally designed as a special fund to meet extra expenditures such as natural disasters, royal tours, additional payments for government employees, and special funds for early retirement of government officials. In addition to these items, two other categories took up sizable chunks of the central fund before the Thaksin government. These two include expenditures on government pensions and projects of emergency local development. Indeed, expenditures on government pensions accounted for as much as 40% of the total central fund in the Chuan government due to increasing number of government officials who reached retirement age. On the other hand, a project of “emergency local development” was frequently used as political instruments for each coalition government to attract supports from the rural people (Jarat 1995).

What is important here is the fact that the central fund (and revolving funds) is substantially independent from any line ministry and is subordinate to the cabinet. For that reason, the Thaksin government intended to utilize the central fund as much as possible to promote its state strategies. As Table 9 clearly shows, major strategic ­projects (see section IV of this article) such as debt repayment of village funds, reserve economic resuscitation (populist-oriented programs for SMEs and rural people), NCP, and provincial cluster development strategy plan were unexceptionally undertaken by using this fund. On the other hand, after the 2006 coup, these strategic projects were suspended by the new government, and ­budget allocations from the central fund were completely stopped as Table 9 demonstrates.34)

Table 9 Budget Allocation of the “Central Fund,” FY 1991–2011

(Units: Million baht, %)


Importantly, additional revenues continuously flowed into the state budget during each fiscal year under the Thaksin government (see section II of this article) and these additional revenues were transferred not to line ministries but to the central fund by order of the prime minister. Likewise, expenditures on the 30-baht medical services were delivered not to the Ministry of Public Health, but to another independent fund or “revolving funds.”35) By employing such techniques, Thaksin could promote his dual-track policies without any repercussions from ministries as well as economic technocrats.

Mass media frequently attacked such management of budget allocation as an “off-budget system” or an arbitrary exploitation of state revenue. But this criticism misses the point because Thaksin’s technique does not violate any of the rules of the existing budget system.36) Nevertheless, increasing proportions of the central fund and revolving funds are not normal from the standpoint of maintaining sound management of national budget. Accordingly, in 2005, Thaksin ordered the BOB to set up ad hoc committee to reconsider and revise the 1959 Act of the Budget in favor of agenda-based budget system.37) But before a new budget could be enacted, Thaksin was ousted from political power by the military coup in September 2006.

Result of Thaksin’s State Reforms

As mentioned in the first section of this article, Thaksin had a Janus-faced public image as populist and state reformist. As a populist, he launched a variety of policies in favor of the masses. In fact, according to the pole survey by ABAC, these policies attracted a great deal of support from the people: 84% for OTOP, 81% for the 30-baht medical services, and 79% for village funds scheme in contrast to 39% for anti-corruption campaign and 35% for restructuring of state enterprises (Tamada 2005, 182–183). Enormous popularity coupled with power concentration has resulted in a “strong prime minister.” Finally, a strong prime minister, intentionally or unintentionally, suggests another chief of state (Pramuk), and therefore a strong competitor to the king.

Immediately after the great victory of TRT in 2005 general election, the Nation Weekly Magazine carried a special issue headlined “The Second Thaksin Government: Next is the Presidency?” (Nation Weekly Magazine 2005). In the context of Thailand, the presidential system is an alternative political form against the monarchy system. Therefore, Thaksin’s great victory in the general election was interpreted by a royalist-military group as a potential and serious menace to the monarchy system. At the same time, Thaksin’s reform of the budget system at the expense of defense matters has always irritated a military group. In addition, he directly intervened in the top personnel manage­ment of the military by appointing his cousin in 2003. These activities finally resulted in the counter-balancing activity of a royalist-military coup to oust Thaksin from the power in 2006 (Wasana 2008).

On the other hand, Thaksin is an active state reformist. He promoted various reforms to modernize the Kingdom of Thailand: changes in the initiatives of policy ­making from technocrats to prime minister and TRT; changes in the principle of macro-economic management from a Five-Year Plan to a state strategy; changes in fiscal base of national projects from public debt to own state revenue; changes in the budget system from the function-based budget allocation to the agenda-based one; and changes in ­public sector from traditional bureaucracy to more efficient modern agencies. More importantly, his reforms also aimed to change the traditional culture of Thai bureaucracy and social values of the Thai people since he wished to develop Thailand into an advanced country under global capitalism.

But his style of conducting reforms was too speedy and too radical for the Thai people. In addition, after the landslide victory of TRT in 2005 general election, Thaksin began to place more priority on the second track of his dual-track policies such as the NCP, the Mega Projects, and modernization of local stock market, which hardly delivered direct benefits to most people. Consequently, the people were disappointed with the second Thaksin government policies. Rather they tend to look at Thaksin’s efforts as reforms for his own interest rather than for the people.

At this conjuncture, mass media disclosed that Thaksin had sold all the stocks of his family holding in Shin Corporation (telecommunications) to a Singaporean firm in exchange of 73.3 billion baht in cash (January 23, 2006). The Thai mass media immediately attacked his trade of stocks as an “unfair” move because Thaksin and his family did not pay any taxes for their earnings. At the same time, mass media also condemned Thaksin as a traitor to a country because he neglected a national interest (local investors) when he decided to sell his stocks. This incident became the catalyst for the anti-Thaksin movement among the people, especially among the middle-class in the Bangkok Metropolitan area, and it developed into the formation of the People’s Alliance for Democracy or PAD (so-called yellow shirts group) in February 2006 (Nariphon 2006; Pasuk and Baker 2009; Suehiro 2009, Ch. 6).

Thaksin’s reform of the public sector also caused to provoke resistance among civil servants. Strategic Plan of the OPSDC was designed with Western key concepts imported from the outside of Thailand. But these concepts were unfamiliar to lower ranked officers who work at public service points. Furthermore, his reforms were inclined to destroy the traditional rules and comfortable culture of Thai bureaucracy such as seniority system and quasi-familial relationship. Civil servants were tired of meeting the strict guidelines imposed by the OPSDC. For these reasons, both the masses and the civil servants temporarily welcomed or accepted the military coup to end the Thaksin regime despite its apparent annulment of the gains of the democratization movement during the 1990s.

My hypothesis can be confirmed by a series of movements of both the National Security Council (NSC) consisting of the promoters of military coup and the Surayud Julanonda temporary government. After the military coup, the new government replaced the 1997 Constitution with a new constitution in August 2007, which was drafted to intentionally exclude the possibility of creating a strong prime minister. When Surayud organized a new cabinet, he appointed most of its members from the ranks of bureaucrats and academic circle. In fact, by the end of May 2007, they include 18 active and retired government officials, 8 academics in the universities, 3 military officials, a politician, and a NGO activist. Unlike the Thaksin government (10 out of 36 persons), members appointed from business community accounted for a mere 2 out of 33 persons (Suehiro 2009, 190). Such distribution of occupational backgrounds suggests the return of Thai politics to the traditional management style of the “bureaucratic polity.”

Likewise, the new government restored the authority of the NESDB. The NESDB now neglected Thaksin-initiated state strategies and revised the 10th Five-Year Plan in accordance with the king’s philosophy of “sufficiency economy” (setthakit phophiang). Its action plan in July 2007 focused on social stability and public calm rather than economic development and modernization of a country. Along with the revival of bureaucracy, the government also restored traditional rule of budget allocation or function-based budget system in favor of line ministries, and quickly increased budge for defense matters (See Fig. 3).


Fig. 3 Changes in Defense Matters in Budget Allocation, FY1991–2011

Source: Made by the author on the basis of Thailand’s Budget in Brief (BOB, each edition).

Budget allocation for defense matters dramatically increased by 35% from 85 billion baht (6.3% of the total) in FY2006 to 115 billion baht (7.3%) in FY2007, while the central fund decreased by 20% from 243 billion baht (17.9%) to 194 billion baht (12.4%) in corresponding years (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief FY2007). In FY2008 and FY2009, the budget allocation for defense matters continued to increase to 143 billion baht (increase by 24% as compared to the previous fiscal year) and to 168 billion baht (increase by 18%), respectively (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief FY2008 and FY2009). These figures suggest the restoration of the military group’s status to the level before the Thaksin government (See also Table 7).

All the moves above demonstrate the effort at resetting the situation of Thailand to the point just before the advent of the Thaksin regime or the effort to completely destroy Thaksinocracy. In the eyes of the new government, Thaksin is a virus that has invaded the computer of Thai society. Therefore, they had to quarantine the virus first and then reset both politics and society to “normal.” The final step of this reset is a court decision to order the dissolution of TRT and the cease of eligibility of 111 TRT executive members for election in next five years. This court decision of May 2007 signals the end of ­Thaksinocracy and the foreclosure of the possibility of Thaksin’s return to the political scene.

However, this resetting work could not eliminate the influence of Thaksin from Thai politics. This is because the new government after the general election under the 2007 Constitution was transformed from an anti-Thaksin group into a pro-Thaksin group, namely, People’s Power Party (PPP). PPP was led by Samak Sundaravej who openly announced that he was willing to serve as the agent of Thaksin Shinawatra. But Samak was ousted from the premiership in September 2008, and Somchai Wongsawat, who succeeded Samak and Thaksin’s younger brother-in-law, was also forced to resign in December according to the orders of the Constitution Court. Finally, Abhisit Vejjajiva of Democrat Party was appointed the 27th prime minister in December 2008 as a result of political bargaining among Democrat Party, military group, royalist members, and anti-Thaksin groups.

Such a political bargaining without democratic procedures created another political conflict between an anti-Thaksin group (a yellow shirts group or PAD and ruling parties) and a pro-Thaksin group (a red shirts group or the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship [UDD] and opposition parties) at the end of 2008.38) In 2010, anti-­government movement led by UDD has quickly grown up into big rallies due in part to the financial support from Thaksin outside Thailand and in part to the economic recession originated in a global financial crisis in 2008. Finally political conflict between UDD and the government (the military) developed into a blood-shed incident in May 2010 (Montesano et al. 2012).

What should be noted here is the fact that the people who came to Bangkok to ­protest against the Abhisit government not only criticized the double standards of the government’s legal treatment of the two groups (anti-Thaksin group and pro-Thaksin group), but also began to publicly air their doubts over the current regime of the Thai state based on the monarchy or Ammathayathipatai.39) New developments in the political movement in recent years appear to be closely connected to increasing income disparity among the people between urban areas and rural areas rather than to poverty in the rural areas. Such increasing income disparity can be attributed not to the fact that Thailand is still a developing country but to the fact that Thailand has become a middle-income country (Suehiro 2009).40)

Generally speaking, it is known that the income gap in terms of the gini index tends to expand when a certain country is moving from a lower-income country into a middle-income country. This hypothesis, or a Kuznet’s reverse U-shape curve, is precisely adaptable to the case of Thailand. Indeed, the gini index of Thailand increased from 0.43 in 1980 to 0.50 in 1987, and further to 0.54 in 1992 (UNDP 2007, 23).41) It is apparent that income distribution has deteriorated during the economic boom.

Crucially, Thaksin is the first prime minister to actually tackle the problems of Thailand as a middle-income country. His state reforms primarily aimed to narrow the gap between economic status of Thailand as a middle-income country and old-fashioned government agencies to handle economic problems. He focused on inequality of opportunity (few business chances in rural areas) rather than inequality of result (poverty in rural areas). Contrary to previous governments, which put priority on poverty reduction, Thaksin emphasized the necessity of creating business chances and community businesses in rural area (village funds, people’s bank, OTOP). Intentionally or unintentionally, his new approach seems to have politically awakened the rural people. They are now focusing their attention on their disadvantaged economic status and the inadequate policies adopted by the traditional ruling elites, and further afield on the state regime itself.

If this hypothesis is true, then any government will have to face the necessity and challenge of solving the various problems facing contemporary Thailand as a middle-income country, problems such as upgrading of industrial structure, resolving income and/or assets disparity in urban and rural areas through creation of jobs and businesses opportunities, fundamental reforms of tax system including individual income tax, property tax, and inheritance tax (phasi moradok), construction of social security system, especially a national pension scheme, and, finally, improvement of public services.

In August 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of Thaksin, became the 28th prime minister in Thailand after the victory of her political party (Pheu Thai Party) in the 2011 general election.42) Does this political incident provide a new opportunity for ­Thaksin to return to political arena and create the incentive for a new government to revive uncompleted Thaksin’s reforms in Thailand? My answer is a negative one. ­Thaksin himself is not a creative destroyer of Thai state anymore. Now he turns into a pure and simple destroyer for Thai society. New government led by Yingluck also has neither intention nor ability of promoting constructive state reforms because they must depend heavily on both populist policies and revived bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, state reforms attempted by Thaksin during his administration are still needed as long as Thailand wishes to maintain or improve its economic status and develop into a more advanced country in the future. On the other hand, Thai people rejected his reforms because these reforms were too speedy and too radical from the standpoint of Thai social value (preference of medium). At the same time, his reforms put priority on business interests rather than social justice. Accordingly, Thailand needs not Thaksin himself or another Thaksin, but a new political leader who will be able to harmonize modernization of Thai state with the happiness and well-being of the people on the basis of Thai social values (Thainess).

Accepted: November 1, 2013


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1) Text is quoted from a provisional English translation by Pasuk and Baker (2007).

2) According to the survey of the Assumption Business Administration College or ABAC in October 2006, 71% of the people were in favor of the Surayud Julanonda temporary government. However, slow-paced response to rural people’s problems eroded popular support for the new government and support, which quickly dropped to 35% in February 2007. See Pasuk and Baker (2009) and Suehiro (2009, Ch. 6).

3) “An ambitious populist” here implies another king as great father of a country, who provides support to all the people with great mercy. Nidhi analyzes the presence of Thaksin as a competitor to the king in the context of Thai political culture of the patrimonial state (Nidhi 2006).

4) For more detailed study on backgrounds and the progress of 30-baht universal health services in reference to the reformist groups in the Ministry of Public Health, see Kawamori (2009).

5) Concerning the collection of speeches of Thaksin, a lot of books are available. Among them, three volume books edited by Pran Phisit-setthakan (2004) are the best ones, which consist of Vol. 1 (Thaksinomics and a CEO Country), Vol. 2 (Thaksin and Social Policies), and Vol. 3 (Thaksin as a Leader in Asia and the World).

6) Thaksin himself defined the CEO system as a system of moderator, or rabop chaophap (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 294–295) or a system of integrator of organizations, or phu-wa buranakarn (ibid., Vol. 2, 223–233).

7) For a detailed account of the development of Thaksin’s business activities, see Sorakon (1993), Suehiro (1995; 2006, Ch. 4), Athiwat (2003), and Pasuk and Baker (2004, Ch. 2).

8) The objectives of dual-track policies were explained by Thaksin himself in his speech in Manila, the Philippines, on September 8, 2003 (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 26–38).

9) In August 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of Thaksin, was appointed a prime minister owing to a victory of pro-Thaksin political party in a general election of July 2011.

10) Increase of private consumption can be attributed partially to rapid growth of consumer’s credit (mini bubble economy) in the period of the Thaksin administration. Indeed, outstanding consumer’s credit doubled, from 72.5 billion baht in the end of 2002 to 143.5 billion baht at the end of 2005 (Bank of Thailand website).

11) Additional state revenue amounted to 48 billion baht in FY 2002, 146 billion baht in FY 2003, and 89 billion baht in FY 2004, respectively. Original estimated revenue in each year was around 1,000 billion baht, and then surplus accounted for 5% to 15% of the total (See Table 7 of this article).

12) For more information on the decision-making process of economic policies in Thailand, see Muscat (1994), Warr and Bhanupong (1996), Suehiro and Higashi (2000, Ch. 1), and Suehiro (2005).

13) After the currency crisis, Japanese government provided a huge amount of credits through the Miyazawa Plan and extra yen credits between 1998 and 1999 (Suehiro 2009, 64–65).

14) The total number of cabinet members accounted for 26 to 44 persons between 1973 and 1990, while deputy ministers accounted for 12 to 21 persons in corresponding period. The Anant government in 1992 reduced its members to 26 persons and 8 persons respectively due to the nature of temporary government after the May bloody incidents in 1992.

15) Author’s interview with Patcharee Siroros in Bangkok, February 1999.

16) Such key persons in the Thaksin government include Pansak Vinyaratn (prime minister’s advisor), Vishnu Krua-ngam (chairman of the Public Sector Development Commission), and Kittidej Sutsukorn (advisor to the Industry Minister), who came from policy advisory team of the Chatichai government (Nakharin 2008).

17) The full name of the committee is the Committee on Strategies and Tactics to Solve National Urgent Problems.

18) All of Thaksin’s speeches at the radio broadcasting until 2003 are edited and included in Supawan (2003). This style of direct dialogue with the people was adopted by the Samak government and the Abhisit government (on TV).

19) Interview conducted by the author with the TRT’s executive committee members in Bangkok, March 2001.

20) These business groups changed their strategies in favor of the Thaksin government in July 2006, and shifted their political donations to the Democrat Party.

21) Author’s interview with the NESDB staffs in Bangkok, August 2001. This plan is officially named a “Strategies for Improvement of Quality of Economic Growth and Sustainable National Economic Development 2001–2006,” which consists of two parts and 28 items.

22) For a comparative study on the objectives, the process of policy-making, and the institutional framework between the IRP and the NCP, see Suehiro (2010).

23) In October of 2005, March and June of 2006, the NESDB submitted again and again revised drafts to the cabinet meeting because there was a sharp conflict between the Thaksin’s own ideas based on his state strategy and the NESDB’s original proposals based on the philosophy of “sufficiency economy” (setthakit phophiang) propounded by the king. For an account for the ideas behind the “sufficiency economy,” see UNDP (2007) and Suehiro (2009, Ch. 4).

24) Thaksin preferred to use the term “the economy of speed” rather than “the economy of scale,” because he liked very much the book, Business at the Speed of Thought, by Bill Gates of Microsoft Corporation (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 177; Vol. 2, 338).

25) Position and classification (P.C.) system for government officers was officially abolished by the Thaksin government before the 2006 military coup.

26) These fact findings and description on the rule of personnel management are based on the author’s survey on 750 persons in director generals and permanent secretaries in major ministries. This work was conducted in cooperation with Ukrist Pathmanand of Chulalongkorn University in 2004 and 2005.

27) For more detail information on reorganization of the government agencies, see two royal degrees concerning “Reforms of Ministries and Departments” on October 2, 2002 (in Thai), which are included into the Racha-kitchanubeksa (Royal Thai Government Gazette), Vol. 119, Part 99 Ko. (pp. 14–34) and Part 102 Ko. (pp. 66–85).

28) For more on Vishnu’s idea of administrative reforms, see Vishnu (2002).

29) Author’s interview with Nakharin Maektrairat, the Dean of Faculty of Political Science of Thammasat University in June 2006, in Tokyo. Concerning the implementation of “Strategic Plan for Public Sector Development,” Thaksin himself explicitly underlined its necessity in his speech of September 21, 2003 with the title of “Development of the Quality of Our Country under the CEO Regime” (Pran 2004, Vol. 1, 73–87).

30) Interviews conducted by the author at the Research and Planning Division of the BOB in August 2006, in Bangkok.

31) An idea of nation-wide pension scheme was abolished later due to the budget constraints. For an overview of social security system in Thailand, see Niwat (2004).

32) After the 2006 coup, the percentages of economic services have further decreased due to political needs of increasing general administration and health services.

33) In the process of reorganizing the government sector in October 2002, Thaksin changed again the status of the National Police Office into an independent body under the direct control of the prime minister. So, it is not adequate to integrate the budge of the National Police Office into line ­ministries.

34) After the end of the Thaksin government, the budget allocation for the central fund reincreased from 198 billion baht in FY2007 to 266 billion baht in FY2011. This recovery should be attributed to rapid increase of government subsidies for pensions and health insurance schemes for government officials.

35) Budget allocation of “30-baht medical services” amounted to 22 billion baht for FY2002, 27 billion baht for FY2003, 30 billion baht for FY2004, 36 billion baht for FY2005, and 40 billion baht for FY2006, respectively. After the 2006 coup, the Surayud government decided to reorganize the 30-baht medical services into a free medical services. As its result, budget allocation for health services in “revolving funds” jumped to 75 billion baht in FY2007 and finally increased to 101 billion baht in FY2011 (BOB, Thailand’s Budget in Brief, each edition).

36) For the case of village funds (77.5 billion baht), the Thaksin government appropriated a total of 60.5 billion baht from FY2002 to FY2006 in the Central Fund for the particular purpose of debt repayment (see Table 9). This implies that even if the majority of village funds resulted in non-performing loans (the worst scenario), the state could still recoup these debts.

37) Contrary to Thaksin’s expectation, the ad hoc committee addressed the basic idea of emphasizing the fiscal autonomy of local governments rather than agenda-based budget system, and was reluctant to revise the 1959 Act of the Budget in line with Thaksin’s idea. Interviews conducted by the author with the staffs of the BOB and Nakharin Maektrairat, a member of the ad hoc committee, in August 2006, in Bangkok.

38) For accounts of the political turmoil in Thailand since 2006, see Funston (2009), Pasuk and Baker (2009), Suehiro (2009), and Montesano et al. (2012).

39)Ammathayathipatai” usually means a bureaucracy. Since 2009, however, it seems to have implied a political regime under the feudal system (Sakdina system) of Thailand in which common people (phrai) were forced to be subordinate to the king and high-ranked bureaucrats (ammat). Red-shirts group used the term “wirachon” as their key identical concept (Hero of a country, the key concept for the first democratization movement during the 1970s) in 2008 and 2009, but changed it to a “phrai” from the year of 2010.

40) In 2010, the World Bank announced that Thailand became a member of middle-income country (a country of per capita GNP from USD3,706 to 11,456). This implies that Thailand successfully upgraded her economic status from a developing country to a semi-advanced country.

41) Gini index of Thailand have slightly decreased from 0.43 in 2000 through 0.43 in 2006 to 0.39 in 2010. Economic inequality, therefore, has not been improved during the 2000s in comparison to rapid decline of poverty population in the same period (Suehiro 2014, Ch.8).

42) Prime Minister Yingluck lost her post by the order of the Constitutional Court on May 7, 2014, and the royalist-military group conducted the military coup d’etat again on May 22.


Vol. 3, No. 2, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 2

A Short Account of the Rise and Fall of the Thai Technocracy

Pasuk Phongpaichit* and Chris Baker**

* ผาสุก พงษ์ไพจิตร, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, 254 Phayathai Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand

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

** Independent Researcher, Thailand

Thailand’s sustained growth from the 1960s to 1990s was often attributed to a strong technocracy relatively free of political influence. Members of the first cadre of technocrats, which emerged in the 1950s, were mostly educated in Europe. In the “American” era, more were educated in the United States and believed the role of government was to provide a safe and liberal environment for capital, mostly through a fixed exchange rate and balanced budget. After 1975 the technocrats had to ­manage a more complex environment because of internal political conflicts and external shocks. They became more powerful because their skills were in demand and because they had strong backing from international institutions. During the boom that began in the mid 1980s, their grip on policy diminished. After the financial crisis of 1997, the technocrats were blamed for not adjusting to changes in the domestic and international economy.

Keywords: Thailand, technocrat, development policy, financial crisis

In the 1990s, it became conventional to attribute the extraordinary success of the Thai economy to careful and conservative management by technocrats. After World War II, Thailand had been one of the most backward economies in Asia, lacking even basic institutions implanted elsewhere by colonial governments. For the next half century, the economy grew at a cumulative average rate of over 7% a year, without once coming even close to a year of the negative growth experienced by most other Southeast Asian countries during the oil shocks. Inflation never got out of hand. Trade deficits were always manageable. Oil shocks were severe but never disastrous. In the great boom which began in 1986–87, the growth rate surged into double digits without suffering from inflation or other diseases of over-heating. Given that Thailand’s politics were punctuated by coups and crises, and that the country was famous for the weakness of the rule of law, some explanation was needed for the smooth, sustained record on economic growth. The technocrats were paraded as that explanation. According to this view, the Thai technocrats managed to operate with some independence from vested interests and some ­insulation from political flux, and had developed traditions of conservative economic management which worked. This view was canonized in a book entitled Thailand’s Macroeconomic Miracle, published by the World Bank in 1996. The book concluded, “By investing technocrats with the power to say ‘no’ to politicians, a state can institutionalize long-term fiscal and monetary restraint, despite the short-term incentive for politicians to act otherwise” (Warr and Bhanupong 1996, 234).

A year later, Thailand led the region into the Asian financial crisis. A year following that, a report commissioned by the Thai government to explain the genesis of the crisis placed the blame firmly on technocrats (Nukul 1998). This Nukul Report reversed every main point of the theory of the technocrats’ stabilizing role. It argued that they had not understood the modern global economy, had been manipulated and intimidated by politicians, had failed to coordinate among themselves, and had taken unfathomable risks with Thailand’s reserves in futile attempts to avert the crisis. How could two such contrasting views of Thailand’s technocrats appear within such a short space of time? What has been the outcome of this crisis for the role of the technocrats since 1997?

This article provides a brief overview of the rise and fall of technocrats in Thailand across the second half of the twentieth century. The first generation of Thai technocrats consisted of a tiny handful of trained economists who established a basic framework of economic management in the post-war era. Their role was boosted by the arrival of US aid and patronage in the development era which began in the late 1950s. The role of the technocrats changed and expanded during the 1980s when the domestic economy began to become more complex, and when the world economy became a source of destabilizing shocks after the end of the Bretton Woods era. The second generation of technocrats acquired influence because of the demand for their skills, and because of the backing they received from international institutions. They became not only economic managers but prominent advocates for changing the direction of economic policy. In the third generation which emerged during the great boom, technocrats had to cope with the consequences of market liberalization on one side and the emergence of parliamentary democracy on the other.

Before the Technocrats

Thailand’s first framework of modern government was created in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and patterned on colonial models which King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) had inspected in India and Indonesia. In these models, the two main functions of government were taxation and control. Accordingly in Siam, ministries of finance and interior were created to undertake these two functions. The Finance Ministry was created by replacing many, scattered revenue-gathering bodies with one central office. The resulting funds were then spent on replacing localized control systems by a single pyramid of paid, permanent bureaucrats under the interior ministry, and by a new standing army. In the original colonial models, the government had a third function to oversee the “moral and material progress” of the colonial subjects. In the Siamese translation of the model, this function was much reduced, and largely limited to primary education and centralized administration of the Buddhist Sangha (monkhood). Government bodies were formed to oversee agriculture, irrigation, and other aspects of the economy, but were of little account given their very limited budgets. Until the 1930s, revenue-raising was limited by the lack of fiscal autonomy under colonial treaties, and a large proportion of the revenues was devoted to the upkeep of the court and royal family. Siam’s first institution of higher education, Chulalongkorn University, founded in 1917, focused on law, public administration, science, and engineering with no teaching of economics or other social sciences.

The two constraints on revenue were removed after the 1932 revolution ended support for the royal family, and the successor government was able to renegotiate the colonial treaties. More funds became available and were largely used to invest in infrastructure, but the impact of this change was limited by the economic disorder of the great depression and World War II.

Pridi Banomyong, the ideologue of the 1932 revolution, had been trained in Paris in both law and political economy. In 1933, he drafted an economic plan which proposed much greater state control over the economy in order to increase efficiency, raise income, and improve equity (Pridi 2000, 83–123). The plan was slated as communist, and had to be abandoned, yet several other plans were drafted around this time, reflecting a worldwide trend to propose greater state coordination to overcome the great depression. In 1934, Pridi founded the University of Moral and Political Science, which later became Thammasat University. Economics was included on the curriculum. Anyone with a high-school diploma could enroll for a BA in law, politics, and economics. Several people who became officials after World War II were educated through this route (Likhit 1978, 126).

Over the late 1930s and World War II, the government became much more involved in managing the economy. Many industries were founded by state investment, or taken over by government, within the framework of a war economy. Pridi laid the first foundations of a central bank by taking charge of the country’s gold reserves which had been deposited in London. During the Japanese occupation of Siam from 1941 to 1945, the government founded a central bank, primarily to defend these reserves from appro­priation by the Japanese (Sithi-Amnuai 1964, 97–98). After the war, the currency was subject to runaway inflation as a result of shortages of basic goods, and distortions in the economy left over from the war. In efforts to limit the social disorder that resulted, government became involved in attempts to regulate prices, manage the flow of commodities, and regularize the relations between the Thai economy and the outside world. These efforts created a demand for technocrats with skills to understand and manage a modern economy.

Puey and the Pioneers, 1949–60

An identifiable technocracy emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s. The main characteristics of this group are best viewed through its most prominent member, Puey Ungphakorn.

Puey came from a modest family of Chinese origin, and made his own career by sheer talent (Wannarak 1996; Puey 2000). His colleagues tended to come from similar origins, or from old Thai bureaucratic families which had invested in education. In background, they stood apart from the old royal order, the new military elite, or the business world. They formed a self-consciously independent new stratum of educated professionals.

Most were educated in Europe. Puey studied at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the era of Harold Laski. He and his colleagues were strongly affected by the democratic socialism of Europe in the post-war years which combined a distrust of ­central planning with a belief in state responsibility for basic welfare.

Puey and his colleagues were very few in number and the skills they possessed were in great demand. As a result, they enjoyed meteoric careers. Puey returned with a doctorate from LSE in 1949 and joined the Ministry of Finance. Four years later he became deputy governor of the central bank at the age of 37. He was appointed the first head of a new Budget Bureau in 1957, and of a new Fiscal Policy Office in 1959, before becoming governor of the Bank of Thailand in the same year at the age of 43. Suparb Yossundara returned to Thailand with a degree from Birmingham University in 1942, joined the Bank of Thailand, and climbed to a peak as the first female director of the World Bank (Puey et al., 1975, vii). This small group knew one another well, and shared a common sense of duty to use their skills to lay the groundwork for modern economic management. From this period, prior to the foundation of a full set of institutions, came the culture of cooperative management.

They worked for authoritarian military leaders who understood the importance of the economy but had no inkling about economic management. Puey and other technocrats were able to bargain with the generals for the freedom and resources they needed in return for quietly ignoring ways in which the generals looted the economy (see for example Amnuay 1964).

As the economy was still based largely on agriculture which could fluctuate widely from year-to-year as a result of seasonal change and shifts in world market conditions, these new economic managers adopted a highly conservative approach designed to prevent such fluctuations provoking inflation or any other serious imbalance. Their main strategies were to maintain a balanced budget, tie the currency to the dollar, and fine-tune with interest rates (Ammar 1975; Warin 1975).

The American Era

Over the course of the 1950s, the United States gradually adopted Thailand as a key Asian base for prosecuting the Cold War, and in particular for combating the rise of communism in Indochina. The close alignment of Thailand with the United States was confirmed after General Sarit Thanarat seized power by coup in 1957.

In this “American era,” the role of the technocracy expanded and changed (Muscat 1990; 1994). The United States provided aid funds and loans which vastly boosted the resources available for developing the economy. Sarit and his US patrons also placed a priority on “development,” meaning economic growth which would insulate the population against the temptation of communism, and ensure the political stability needed for the country to act as a reliable base for US operations.

US advisers helped to install a stronger institutional base for managing this larger budget and more complex task. A new Budget Bureau was formed inside the Ministry of Finance to systematize the allocation and monitoring of government funds. A Fiscal Policy Office (FPO) was created to plan fiscal policies. A new planning agency was formed which eventually was known as the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB). The Bank of Thailand was strengthened after Puey became governor in 1959. A World Bank mission visited Thailand in 1957–58, and its report was adapted into a first five-year plan. The NESDB assumed the responsibility for drafting these plans and overseeing their implementation, though much of the input came from advisers provided by the World Bank or US government.

The members of this small pioneer group of technocrats were dispersed to head these principal institutions, but continued their tradition of cooperative management. The Budget Bureau, central bank, and planning board formed a triangle which shared the management of the economy. Their technocrat heads were still able to leverage their skills to gain considerable freedom of action from the military rulers. In addition, they also now had US patrons who could sometimes be called upon for support against the generals.

The approach outlined in the World Bank report and in the early five-year plans reflected an American view of the role of the state in the economy. Growth would come from providing a safe and liberal environment for capital. The remnants of the wartime command economy were quickly dismantled.

Although the economy became larger and more complex in this era, the management remained simple and conservative. The state did not have to do very much in order to stimulate growth. Investments in infrastructure, especially roads and ports, made it cheaper and easier for private capital to tap the country’s very considerable natural resources. The economy grew on rising exports of primary produce. The world economy was enjoying the growth of the post-war recovery and stability of the Bretton-Woods era. Strong world demand ensured steadily rising exports. The shocks and tremors imported from the world economy were minor. The technocrats had to make only very minor adjustments to their formula of a balanced budget, fixed exchange rate, and fine-tuning with interest rates (Ammar 1975; Warin 1975). Ammar Siamwalla called the actions of the technocrats in this era a “behavior pattern,” quipping that “to use . . . the more purposive term ‘policy’ . . . would be altogether too flattering” (Ammar 1975, 30).

During his tenure as governor of the central bank, Puey not only contributed towards development and the tradition of cooperative economic management, but also laid the foundations for the future evolution of the technocracy. He created central bank scholarships for overseas education of talented young economists, and set up funds for sponsoring research on the Thai economy. He gained the central bank a reputation as a center of excellence and expertise which attracted talented young professionals, despite lower rewards than in the expanding world of business (Wannarak 1996, 77–82). Puey also became Dean of the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University and secured ample funding from US foundations to educate future technocrats there.

At the same time, the US patrons invested in creating a new generation of technocrats who shared an American viewpoint. Several senior officials were taken to the United States for training. Around 1,500 went on Fulbright or similar grants between 1951 and 1985, and another 3,000 on other US funding. The numbers attending US higher education rose from a few hundred in the 1950s to 7,000 by the early 1980s ­(Muscat 1990, 60).

The Second Generation and Policy-Making, 1976–88

In October 1976, Puey fled from Thailand and spent the rest of his life in exile. His departure marked the end of an era in the history of Thailand’s technocrats. The reasons for his departure signaled changes which would alter their role. Puey was branded as a communist in an extreme right-wing reaction to a phase of liberal and leftist politics. Behind this deep ideological division lay social strains, conflicts, and aspirations stirred up by the economic changes of the prior generation. From this point forward, policy-making would have to pay more attention to social consequences.

The late 1970s were also the end of the era when the world economy would serve as a stable and largely benign background to Thailand’s growth. The first oil crisis announced the start of a period of price shocks, sharper business cycles, and more eccentric money flows in the post-Bretton-Woods era.

The departure of Puey also marked a passage of generations. The largely Europe-trained technocrats of the post-war era were gradually replaced by a generation which was far more likely to have been trained in the United States. By 1974, 71% of the ­foreign-trained officials in the top ranks of the bureaucracy were schooled in the United States, compared to 18% in Europe (Likhit 1978, 124). A prominent example was Narongchai Akrasanee, who returned from Johns Hopkins University in 1973 with a doctorate on trade policy (Narongchai 1973) and became a lecturer, author, and policy adviser. Thailand had no policy “mafia” associated with a single school, though Harvard enjoyed marginally more prestige and popularity than others.

The training of this new generation of technocrats reflected the ideology of the United States at the point of its triumph in the Cold War. The content had less political economy, more models and maths. Plans were wrong and markets right. The technocrats became a strident lobby for liberalizing trade.

The period from the early 1980s to early 1990s was the golden age of the Thai technocracy. Growing frequency of external shocks, heightened sensitivity of local politics, and increased complexity of the economy as it shifted towards industrialization increased the demand for the technocrats’ skills. A renewed influence of the World Bank, which provided Thailand with loans to tide over the second oil crisis, provided the technocrats with another base of support. In the early 1980s, the technocrats in the NESDB and FPO acquired an important new role in liaising with the World Bank and other international financial institutions which provided Thailand with loans (Bhattacharya and Brimble 1986).

On the tail-end of the second oil crisis, the Thai economy entered a deep slump which felled two banks and forced a devaluation of the currency. On the backwash of this mini-crisis, a small group of technocrats became prominent in public debate over policy. Snoh Unakul gathered a group in the planning board including Phisit Pakkasem, Kosit Panpiemrat, and Sippanonda Ketudhat. Suthy Singsaneh and Panas Simasthien who had managed the 1984 devaluation served as finance ministers. Chavalit Tanachanan and Nukul Prachuabmoh headed the central bank. Among academics, Virabongsa ­Ramangkura acted as adviser to the prime minister, and Narongchai Akrasanee worked as consultant to the planning agency. Most of this group had been educated in the United States during the time of US patronage of Thailand in the 1960s and early 1970s, and were affected by the prevailing enthusiasm for market liberalization. They lobbied for policy changes to liberalize markets and reorient Thailand towards the export-oriented industrialization that had been so successful in Korea and Taiwan. They argued that more liberal markets would destroy the monopolies and oligopolies which hindered growth (Snoh 1987). Over 1984–86, often working closely with World Bank advisers, this technocrat group guided reforms in tax, trade, and investment policy to favor export-oriented industry.

At the same time, the significance of planning declined. In the early 1980s, the NESDB drew up ambitious plans to shift Thailand towards industrialization through exploitation of newly discovered reserves of oil and natural gas. In these plans, government took a major role as investor, and the NESDB provided overall coordination. But over 1983–85 as a consequence of the second oil-shock, this ambitious scheme had to be abandoned. Government investment was scaled down, NESDB’s role in the project was reduced, and the initiative was handed to private enterprise.

This shift marked a more general change. Planning no longer had much meaning. NESDB continued to draw up five-year plans but they were only indicative documents and they bore less and less relation to actual policy. Technocrats were increasingly involved in short-term policy-making to manage the instability imported from the international economy (see for example Pisit 1991). New measures were added to their array of policy tools. A balanced budget was no longer a religious goal, and deficits could be used to stimulate the economy. Policies were used to stimulate specific sectors, such as tourism and labor export, when they were needed to earn foreign exchange because commodity exports faltered. Technocrats were also needed to revise the tax system and investment promotion to serve a new emphasis on export-oriented industry. Some technocrats began to specialize in social policies to overcome poverty, to counter growing regional imbalance, to reorient the education system for the needs of industry, and to track the impact of growth on the environment (Warr 1993; Phisit 1988).

With growing specialization and an increased emphasis on short-term fine-tuning to cope with external shocks, the technocracy ceased to be so effective in providing overall coordination. The old triangle gradually crumbled away. The NESDB declined in importance, though its long-term head, Snoh Unakul, was the single most important guide of policy-making through his personal role as advisor to a succession of governments. The role of the Budget Bureau also diminished as parliamentary politics took root over the 1980s and budget allocation were increasingly influenced by political bargaining in parliamentary committees.

By this time, the Ministry of Finance and the central bank had become clearly separate institutions with their own respective internal cultures. No longer did senior figures migrate between posts in different institutions. The bank and the ministry tended more often to fall into conflict over the roles of fiscal and monetary policy, their respective areas of expertise.

After the economy entered a ten-year boom in 1986, buoyed up by relocation of Japanese industries, the growing lack of coordination scarcely mattered and was easily ignored. Yet in this period, even more than ever before, the long-term strength of the Thai economy was attributed to the relative independence of the technocrats, the coordination within the triangle, and a tradition of conservative management.

The Third Generation: Financial Liberalization and Politics, 1988–97

Until the late 1980s, technocrats did not have to bother much about elected politicians with some responsibility to their constituents. Since the 1930s, there had been four interludes with elective parliaments but these had not lasted long enough to disturb a pattern of relatively unfettered rule by generals and senior bureaucrats. From 1979 onwards, however, parliament began to take root. Demarcation disputes multiplied between elected ministers and senior bureaucrats. These remained muted while the government was still headed by a military official, General Prem Tinsulanond, but escalated rapidly after Prem was replaced in 1988. The new prime minister, Chatichai Choonhavan, was a former military officer but had become more of a businessman than a soldier, and had risen to power with the support of businessmen MPs. With the economy now in a phase of breakneck double-digit growth, the business community in general had a new confidence about its economic and political status. Ministers were keen to use state power for both fair reasons (especially, upgrading infrastructure to keep pace with economic growth), and foul (profiting in the process). They launched the first significant assault on the power of the senior bureaucracy in a century.

Ministers sacked or reassigned several senior officials who were not fully cooperative, and revised the boards of key government agencies. These changes sent a general message to the bureaucracy about the shifting location of power. The prime minister set up an internal think-tank, staffed by young academics and assigned to advise on policy. Before this innovation, governments had little capacity to develop policy, and policy-making had remained largely the preserve of bureaucratic agencies. The think-tank was soon in conflict with senior officials, especially over the direction of foreign policy, but also over economic issues. Politicians argued that bureaucratic conservatism served as a constraint on economic growth and business profit. The cabinet adopted resolutions which increased ministers’ personal discretion to approve large budgets for infrastructure projects. Finally, the parliament challenged the size of the military budget and the secrecy surrounding its use, insisting that more funds be diverted to development activities.

Under Chatichai, the finance portfolio was held by a politician rather than the technocrats who had virtually monopolized the post in the past. The first was a businessman, Pramual Sabhavasu, who wanted to abandon cautious financial management in order to spur economic growth. He gathered his own group of policy advisers, tried to take direct control of fiscal and monetary policy, and intervened directly in the operations of the NESDB, FPO, and central bank. The governor of the central bank, Kamchorn Sathirakul, reacted strongly against this interference, and argued that the central bank should be more independent. The conflict between the two men became the stuff of the daily press, and Kamchorn was sacked from the governorship in early 1990 (Zhang 2003, 114–115). Pramual was also later reshuffled, and in December 1990, the finance portfolio was allotted to Banharn Silpa-archa, an elected politician, who had specialized in diverting an excessive share of budget funds to his own province and who patently had very ­limited grasp of economics. From this point onwards, the relations between the Finance ­Ministry and Bank of Thailand were marked by conflict.

These attempts to shift power and funds from official to political hands provoked a large reaction, expressed mainly in accusations of corruption directed against ministers. This provided the background against which a military clique was able to perform a coup against the Chatichai government in February 1991, and arraign several ministers on grounds of corruption.

The coup junta chose a diplomat-turned-businessman, Anand Panyarachun, to become prime minister. For his cabinet, Anand selected some of the most prominent technocrats of this generation, including several who had been prominent in the advocacy of market liberalization in the 1983–85 period. This cabinet took the opportunity to push through a range of liberalizing reforms in the belief they were needed to increase efficiency and sustain the extraordinary boom. In particular, these reforms completed the liberalization of the capital market which had begun tentatively in the late 1980s. Almost immediately flows of international finance rose rapidly as Thai corporations tapped cheaper sources of loan capital and as foreign investment funds experimented on the Thai stock market. In the initial stages these new financial flows served to stimulate the economy and increase private wealth and hence were viewed as largely benign. In the longer term they brought a new element of instability into the economy and demanded new methods and disciplines in economic management.

Although the liberalization of the capital market represented a major change in the relationship between the Thai economy and the outside world, there were no attempts to reform institutions or rejig established practices to reflect the new situation. Although in retrospect, the attempt to retain a fixed exchange rate in parallel with free capital flows was a fatal combination, for seven years the technocrats debated and dithered over the need to free up the exchange rate without coming to any decision.

The twin forces of democratization and financial liberalization conspired to create a major crisis for the technocracy in the mid-1990s. In 1992, the junta was ejected after violent street demonstrations, and elective parliaments returned. The Democrat Party which headed the coalition government installed in 1992 recruited its own team of technocrats, largely professional bankers, to manage the economy. However, these were soon in conflict with businessmen-politicians intent on using state power to sustain the faltering boom, to deliver goods to their constituents, and to gain favors for their own enterprises.

The desire of business politicians to relax controls and restraints created tensions within the Democrat-led coalition which finally brought the government down in early 1995. By this time, the cracks which would finally turn boom into crisis were already beginning to show. Political parties tried to recruit technocrats in the hope they would win the party votes with an increasingly nervous urban electorate. But the politicians still hoped to find technocrats who were amenable to their will. Over 1995–96, the prime minister (Banharn Silpa-archa) sacked his own nominee as finance minister, replaced him with a tame tax official, and then sacked the head of the stock exchange.

The conflict between technocrats and politicians spilled over into the press and public debate. The association of stock market investors called on the government to resign. Businessmen complained that “politicians increasingly interfere with the day-to-day operations of the Bank of Thailand” (Nation, June 18, 1996). The Bankers Association demanded the “depoliticization” of economic management. A senior technocrat urged that macro management “is so urgent and technical it cannot be left to the politicians” (Nation, August 31, 1996). Academics petitioned the prime minister to leave economic management alone.

Turnover at the top of the Finance Ministry and central bank became more rapid than ever before. When another cabinet folded in 1996, technocrats lined up to announce publicly that they would not take the posts which were normally the crowning point of a technocratic career. On press and public platform, technocrat spokesmen argued for reforms which would insulate economic management from political pressure. The Bank of Thailand governor was obliged to resign after becoming too embroiled with politicians and with the stock market. With no good candidates keen to take the post, succession was decided by seniority. A bureaucrat-turned-banker who accepted the finance minister’s portfolio lasted only weeks. The permanent secretary of the Finance Ministry was effectively sacked for being too independent.

After the crash in 1997, government commissioned a report to analyze the causes of the crisis and to recommend reforms. The resulting Nukul Report pinned the blame firmly on the policy errors committed by the central bank, and related these to a more general long-term decline in the technocracy. The quality of recruitment had declined since the boom had vastly widened the salary gap between officialdom and business. The old traditions of cooperation between the principle institutions of economic management had withered and been supplanted by conflicts over turf and precedence. The central bank had totally failed to introduce the reforms needed in the wake of financial liberalization. The report was an obituary for the Thai technocracy (Nukul 1998).

Rebirth Aborted

A plan for rebirth was hatched within the World Bank and IMF teams engaged in helping Thailand recover from the crisis. The plan was broadly supported by technocrats who participated in the new Democrat-led coalition government installed in late 1997. The prime focus of these reforms was to make the central bank a more independent, more rule-based, and more skilled custodian of the interface between the national economy and the outside world, as well as a more effective overseer of the banking system. The central bank was restructured internally to reflect that vision. Legislation to make it more independent of political influence was drafted but persistently delayed. Inflation targeting was adopted as a discipline to make monetary policy more principled and transparent. The bank undertook to intervene in the foreign exchange market only to counter short-term eccentricity. New indicators were devised to monitor the economy’s health and predict any looming disaster.

The same principles dictated reforms in the Finance Ministry. The Budget Bureau and budget process were overhauled. The FPO was allotted an enlarged role to introduce a longer-term perspective into fiscal policy.

Since the mid-1980s, the World Bank had been pressing Thailand to undertake a more general reform of the bureaucracy based on the principles of New Public Management (NPM), meaning the adaptation of modern business management practice to the public sector with an emphasis on setting goals, measuring results, rewarding performance, and punishing corruption and other abuse (Bidhya 1994). After the 1997 crisis, the World Bank was able to push this agenda through to a comprehensive Public Sector Management Reform Plan produced by the Office of the Civil Service Commission in 1999. The plan covered finance, personnel management, legal changes, redistribution of roles among departments, and measure to eliminate corruption (Bidhya 2004; Painter 2005). These various post-crisis reforms appeared to rescue the technocracy and assure them of a future role.

But the conflict between technocrats and businessmen soon returned and aborted the technocracy’s revival. In 2001, the first elections after the crisis returned a government dominated by business. The new prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, campaigned for popular support on grounds that officialdom served as a drag on economic growth, and that businessmen rather than bureaucrats ought to take greater charge of the economy. Thaksin reflected a return to the Chatichai era’s program to shift power between bureaucracy and politicians. Several members of Chatichai’s policy think-tank surfaced in Thaksin’s government including Surakiat Sathirathai as foreign minister, Pansak ­Vinyaratn as chief adviser, and Bowornsak Uwanno as cabinet secretary. The first few months in office saw a purge of senior officials and members of public sector boards on a scale not seen since the Chatichai era. Also as in the Chatichai era, the Thaksin government created an infrastructure for policy-making which took the initiative away from the bureaucracy. Thaksin and the major ministers had extensive teams of advisers. Some of these were honorary posts or business friends, but many were full-time workers, often recruited from university or professional backgrounds. Some were employed on official salaries under new rules for the appointment of “vice-ministers.” Others were employed directly by Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, or by individual leaders. The numbers employed in this policy-making establishment were significantly larger than under any previous Thai government.

Thaksin removed the head of the central bank who had been a strong advocate of the bank’s independence and was known for his inflexibility. The legislation to guarantee the central bank’s independence drifted away to limbo. However, thereafter the prime minister left the bank alone. He locked horns with the new governor repeatedly over policy, but refrained from removing him, perhaps because of the impact that would have on international markets.

Thaksin’s impact on the Finance Ministry was more dramatic. He oversaw a major overhaul of the budget which saw the process brought firmly under the prime minister’s control (see Suehiro in this volume). Although the NESDB continued to produce five-year plans, these were now completely meaningless. The NESDB was converted into an executive agency for projects hatched by the prime minister and his policy advisers. Outsiders were brought into key posts such as the head of the NESDB and of the FPO so that they would be closely linked to the premier rather than to the traditions and factions of these bureaus.


The history of technocrats in Thailand and in other countries of Southeast Asia has ­followed a similar trajectory. The demand for technocrat skills appeared after World War II with the post-war economic disorder, decolonization, and a new responsibility for development. In the pioneer era, there was a small group of technocrats, usually trained in Europe, who quickly gained considerable power because of the rarity of their skills. In this era there was a close cooperation among a small group which later became mythologized.

A breakpoint appeared in the early 1980s, largely because of the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system on a world scale, but also because of increasing complexity in the economies of the region. This was an era of fierce ideological debate over the direction of macro development policy. On the one side were advocates of liberating markets on the grounds that freer markets would deliver greater efficiency. On the other side were supporters of the developmental state model, arguing that the success of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan came from concerted government policies to engineer markets with the aim of developing industry. In this era, technocrats become prominent not just as necessary technicians for managing a modern economy but as advocates of different choices for policy-making.

A third period began after 1986. More foreign investment came to the region. Booming economies strengthened businessmen vis-à-vis officials. Neoliberal ideology provided theoretical justification for replacing technocratic management of the economy with rule-based systems and institutions which would be less vulnerable to political manipulation. In this era, any remaining unity among the technocrat communities in all the countries was broken down by competing agendas and cross-cutting political pressures. Many potential recruits to the technocracy were diverted to more glamorous and rewarding careers in private enterprise, especially finance.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis brought technocrats into some disrepute in the short term on grounds that they had been partially responsible for allowing a crisis of such magnitude to happen. But the crisis also created new roles for technocrats in building stronger institutions and practices to guard against further crises. Across the region, technocrats returned to some prominence in the early 2000s, though in Thailand their re-emergence was overshadowed by the political project of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Accepted: November 1, 2013


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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.


Vol. 2, No. 2, Noboru Toyoshima

Contents>> Vol. 2, No. 2

Emergent Processes of Language Acquisition: Japanese Language Learning and the Consumption of Japanese Cultural Products in Thailand

Noboru Toyoshima*

*豊島 昇 , Institute of Asian Studies, Organization for Asian Studies, Waseda University, 513 Waseda Tsurumaki-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0041, Japan

e-mail: nobo[at]

Motivation for learning a second language varies among individuals: some people enjoy the process of learning languages, while others learn a second language for practical reasons. Previous fieldwork research in Thailand has shown that many consumers of Japanese cultural products are also learners of the Japanese language. This suggests that Japanese cultural products motivate consumers to start studying Japanese and to continue learning it. In this study, two hypotheses will be posed in order to reveal the relationship between the consumption of Japanese cultural products and Japanese language learning: (1) exposure to Japanese cultural products induces Japanese language learning, and (2) Japanese language learning induces the consumption of other Japanese cultural products. Through questionnaire research conducted on university students in Thailand and through ethnographic data, this study attempts to examine the hypotheses and to demonstrate a continuous cycle model of Japanese language learning and the consumption of Japanese cultural ­products.

Keywords: Japanese, pop culture, cultural product, language acquisition, motivation, Thailand


During the last few decades, Japanese pop culture has become very popular throughout the world, especially in Asian countries. Newsweek on November 8, 1999 reported that many characters from anime (Japanese animation) such as Pikachu (Pokémon), Hello Kitty, and Doraemon were consumed by the new generation of middle-class Asian consumers, and that X-Japan, Puffy, and other Japanese music icons as well as TV stars had attracted the younger Asian generation, which yearned for more Japanese pop culture (Koh 1999).

Although commodified culture, which generally comprises a high proportion of native speakers, tends to flow between countries of the same language culture, Japanese is spoken only in Japan—and its commodified culture is formed mostly from the Japanese language. In order to consume Japanese cultural products, however, knowledge of the Japanese language is not necessary, since most of the products are translated and/or localized for consumption in each country and region of the world. In Thailand, manga (Japanese comics) are translated into Thai, and anime (Japanese animation) is subtitled or dubbed in Thai by Thai voice actors. Some Japanese fashion magazines are published in Thai, and readers can obtain up-to-date information about Japanese clothes, fashion, cosmetics, and accessories in their first language. Most of these products are readily available in Bangkok and are also sold in stores across Thailand.

Although Japanese language ability is not absolutely necessary for the consumption or enjoyment of Japanese cultural products, it can be an advantage for consumers of them if they want to consume them enthusiastically and pleasurably. In a previous study, a questionnaire research on fans of the Japanese male idol group w-inds., which was conducted in Bangkok in 2007, revealed that 52.9 percent of respondents started studying the Japanese language after they became w-inds. fans (Toyoshima 2011, 122). Twenty-five percent of respondents had started learning Japanese before they became fans, and 18.3 percent said they wanted to learn Japanese, which means 97.1 percent of fans had experienced learning Japanese or were interested in doing so. They needed Japanese language ability to read the lyrics of the songs, to listen to the video interviews, to write fan letters, to read idol magazines, to read information on the Internet, and so on.

In another study conducted in Bangkok, in October 2008, a questionnaire research on cosplayers—fans of the otaku subcultures of manga, anime, or video games who ­create costumes and props related to their favorite characters and wear them to conventions and expositions—revealed that 42.3 percent of respondents had studied Japanese in the past and 23.1 percent were currently studying Japanese (ibid., 180). Titles of several manga, anime, and video games are translated into Thai, but there are many more that have not been translated yet. If Thais want to consume such “untranslated” products, they need to study Japanese.

The two above-cited questionnaire research surveys on Thai youths reveal that the consumption of Japanese cultural products is closely related to Japanese language learning. Based on the research results as well as interviews I have conducted in Thailand over the past several years, I realize that there is a relationship between the consumption of Japanese cultural products and language learning; these surmises can be summarized in the hypotheses in the following paragraph.

First, exposure to Japanese cultural products induces Japanese language learning (Hypothesis 1). When one starts liking a Japanese cultural product and wants to consume it more seriously or deeply, one may start wanting to learn Japanese. Second, Japanese language learning induces the consumption of other Japanese cultural products (Hypo­thesis 2). When one studies Japanese, one may be exposed to additional Japanese cultural products, especially through interaction with other Japanese learners who are consumers of those products, and one may develop an interest in other Japanese cultural products. Lastly, if the first and second hypotheses are proved to be true, they can be combined to theorize a continuous cycle of language learning and consumption of ­Japanese cultural products (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1 The Hypotheses

This study seeks evidence to prove the two hypotheses, and it discusses the process of the continuous cycle as the driving force for the popularization of Japanese cultural products in Thailand. Through discussing and testing these hypotheses, I will try to answer two questions: Is the consumption of Japanese cultural products a motivation for starting to learn the Japanese language among Thais? And does Japanese language learning motivate language learners to consume more Japanese cultural products in Thailand?

Research Method

The discussions in the following sections are supported by three kinds of sources: (1) concepts from previous studies (literature review), (2) an overview of Japanese language education in Thailand, and (3) questionnaire research results. In the following sections, concepts in culture and media studies (“geolinguistic region,” “cultural discount,” and “cultural odorlessness”) will be introduced, and then language acquisition will be presented. Following the literature review, there is a brief explanation of the Japanese language education system in Thailand. After that, I present the results of a questionnaire survey on university students majoring in Japanese in Thailand. Lastly, the discussion and conclusion are presented.

In this study, a questionnaire was administered to 78 Japanese major students in Chulalongkorn University (Table 1) between October and December 2008. The questionnaire forms were distributed in classrooms by a professor in the Japanese language department. Most of the respondents were in their third or fourth year of studies at the university, but there were a few first- and second-year students among the respondents. The questionnaire was qualitative in nature, as many of the questions were open-ended and the students could write freely in the space provided. In addition to the open-ended questions, the questionnaire included “Yes/No” questions and “fill-in number” questions that could be analyzed statistically. The reason I embedded the latter questions in the questionnaire was that such questions can provide basic descriptive data on the respon­d­ents—and because they are simple and easy for students to answer instinctively.

Table 1 Questionnaire Respondents’ Age and Sex


It is important to note that the questionnaire results in this research are mostly descriptive; and they are used to complement the qualitative analyses. What is important for this research is to show as many opinions and comments from the respondents as possible, thus demonstrating with empirical data the relationship between Japanese language learning and the consumption of Japanese cultural products.

Concepts from Previous Studies

Language, Culture, and Cultural Products
In discourses on audiovisual cultural products or “media products” such as films and television programs, some cultural and media scholars have used the term “geolinguistic region,” which means “all the countries throughout the world in which the same language is spoken.” According to these scholars, media products in a certain language can be marketed more easily in countries that belong to the same geolinguistic region (Sinclair 1996, 42). A good example is the English-speaking world: producers in the United States are able to spend expensive budgets on the production of media products, as they can expect greater returns on their products by taking advantage of the expansive English-speaking markets of the world. Richard Collins points to “the language advantage” that Anglophone producers have: English is not only the language with the largest population of native speakers, it is also the world’s most important second language (Collins 1990, 54–55).

In discussions on the international trade of television programs, the term “cultural discount” is used to express a reduction in appreciation of the value of a television program in the recipient country. When a foreign program is broadcast, the value of the program is diminished and fewer viewers will watch the program than a domestic program of the same type and quality (Hoskins and Mirus 1988, 500; Lee 2006). In the notion of cultural discount, the factor of how closely viewers can identify with the culture in the content of programs is very important. Although language can be translated or dubbed by local voice actors, the culture of the country of origin remains in the content. Colin Hoskins and Rolf Mirus point out that Japan has been successful in exporting VCRs to the American market, but it has not been successful in exporting television programs to the American market. They explain that “a VCR is culturally neutral, an American or German is indifferent to the country of origin of a VCR unit because this does not affect the way it works and the satisfaction he obtains from usage” (Hoskins and Mirus 1988, 503).

The notion of cultural discount is not in line with the worldwide success of anime and Japanese video games. Koichi Iwabuchi argues that the notion of cultural discount does not explain a consumer’s cultural preference and that the concept of “cultural ­neutrality” is misleading (Iwabuchi 2002, 27). Iwabuchi uses the term “cultural odor” to mean the symbolic image of the country of origin of cultural products; and he finds the “cultural odorlessness” of Japanese video games and anime to be one of the reasons for their popularity throughout the world. The concept of cultural “odorlessness” thus denies “Japaneseness” as the reason why Japanese cultural products are so popular throughout the world.

When we apply these notions of media studies to Japanese cultural products that are not “culturally neutral” but are “culturally very Japanese,” it can be predicted that there is likely to be a depreciation in value of such cultural products in the Thai market.

Second Language Motivation
Researchers in social psychology and education have been discussing the importance of motivation for second language acquisition for several decades (Gardner and Lambert 1972; Clément and Kruidenier 1983; Noels et al. 2000). One of the first—and important—theoretical discussions on the issue was by Richard Gardner and Wallace Lambert, who suggested that a student’s motivation to learn a second language was determined by the student’s attitude toward the linguistic-cultural group in particular, by the student’s attitude toward foreign people in general, and by the student’s orientation toward the learning task itself. They identified two classes of orientation. The first is instrumental, which refers to a desire to learn the second language to achieve some practical goal, such as job advancement or course credit. The second orientation is integrative—that is, the student wishes to acquire the second language in order to learn more about the other cultural community (Gardner and Lambert 1972, 3; Noels et al. 2000).

By applying the notions of instrumental and integrative orientation, Natnicha Vadhannapanich analyzed the motivations of 40 Japanese language learners in Thailand—language learners she had recruited through the Internet and who had been studying Japanese for more than five years (Natnicha 2010). She found that 36 of the 40 language learners had started to study Japanese in order to obtain information about Japanese pop culture (instrumentality) and that learning Japanese made the language learners foster and nurture a love for Japan (integrativeness) (ibid.). Although the notion of instrumental and integrative orientation in discourses of second language motivation seems useful in classifying each individual motivation, it seems oversimplistic to label a language learner with the dichotomic orientational types.

An Overview of Japanese Language Education in Thailand

According to the Survey Report on Japanese-Language Education Abroad 2006, approximately 2.98 million students were studying Japanese in 133 countries outside Japan in 2006 (Japan Foundation 2008a). Thailand is one of the 133 countries that offer Japanese language education. As shown in Table 2, the number of Japanese language learners in Thailand is the seventh largest among the 133 countries. The Japan Foundation conducts a survey on Japanese language education abroad every three years. Table 2 is based on the results of its 2006 survey, which indicates that the number of Japanese learners in primary and secondary schools in Thailand increased by 80.9 percent in 2006 compared to 2003.

Table 2 Change in Number of Learners (2003–6)


As shown in Table 3, Japanese language education is highly prevalent in Thailand in proportion to the size of the population; there is one Japanese language learner for every 903 people. This figure is ranked 16th in the Top 30 list, which means that Japanese language education is very popular in Thailand.

Table 3 Ratio of Japanese Learners in Population


Japanese Language Education in Secondary Schools in Thailand
In 1980, Japanese was adopted as one of the foreign languages to be taught in secondary schools in Thailand (Matsui et al. 1999, 61). The Basic Education Core Curriculum B.E. 2551 (A.D. 2008) prescribes basic learning content for English, but “for other foreign languages, e.g., French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Pali and languages of neighboring countries, it is left to the discretion of educational institutions to prepare courses and provide learning management as appropriate” (Thailand, Ministry of Education 2008). In reality, foreign languages other than English are taught in upper secondary schools in Thailand (Fig. 2): French, German, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, Pali, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, and Arabic (Ebihara 2004).


Fig. 2 School System in Thailand

Source: Compiled from the figure in Education in Thailand 2004 (Thailand, Office of the Education Council, Ministry of Education 2004).

In her report on the content of Japanese language education in upper secondary schools in Thailand, Fumiko Shiratori wrote that in 2001 there were about 2,400 public secondary schools in Thailand, of which about 120 taught Japanese. According to the report, although the guidelines for Japanese language instruction were issued by the Ministry of Education in Thailand, the content that was taught in schools was not stand­ardized and each teacher could choose what to teach (Shiratori 2002).

When I visited the Ministry of Education in Thailand for an interview in 2007, ­Chantra Tantipong, who was an officer at the Bureau of Academic Affairs and Educational Standards, told me that the Japanese language curriculum for upper secondary schools was developed and maintained with the collaboration of the Japan Foundation (Personal communication, December 14, 2007). At the time of the interview, the Basic Education Curriculum B.E. 2544 (A.D. 2001) was in effect, but it also let each school decide what to teach and how to teach foreign languages besides English (Thailand, Ministry of Education 2001). The ministry, therefore, did not have any statistical data or information on Japanese language education in Thailand, and the Japan Foundation was the agency that developed the Japanese language education curriculum for secondary schools in Thailand.

The Japan Foundation in Bangkok is the center of Japanese education in Thailand. It organizes several programs that contribute to Japanese education, such as holding seminars and training courses for teachers, providing teaching materials, dispatching Japanese education experts to educational institutions, executing the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), and so on. In an interview, Kazutoshi Hirano, the head of the Japanese language department of the Japan Foundation in Bangkok, explained the purpose of the Japan Foundation in regards to Japanese language education (Personal communication, April 2, 2008). Hirano’s detailed explanations on the projects clarified that the activities of the Japan Foundation greatly supported teachers and secondary schools. As Chantra Tantipong of the Ministry of Education suggested, Japanese language education in upper secondary schools in Thailand is supported by the activities and services of the Japan Foundation.

The number of learners by type of education in ASEAN countries is shown in Table 4. In Thailand, 45 percent of Japanese language learners are in primary and secondary school. For secondary students in Thailand, there may be another incentive to study Japanese. Since 1998, the Japanese language has been one of the subjects in the standardized university entrance examination system in Thailand. Upper secondary school students who want to enter non-science major programs (departments) at university are usually required to take four subject examinations: Thai, social studies, English, and an elective. In the entrance examination, there are six foreign languages: French, German, Pali, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. Many non-science major students take a foreign language examination as an elective; in the entrance examination of 2004, there were 2,558 students who chose Japanese as an elective (Ebihara 2005).

Table 4 Number of Japanese Learners in ASEAN Countries (by Type of Education)


Japanese Language Education in Higher Education
The curriculum for higher education is prepared by individual institutions. Teaching materials and methods are also developed by each individual university. Although the Ministry of Education (Thailand) requires that each university revise its curriculum every five years and that the new curriculum go through an authorization process that has to be approved by the ministry, the current curriculum is not evaluated systematically to reflect on the new curriculum (Ek-Ariyasiri 2008). Before the mandated curriculum revisions, therefore, some university professors try to evaluate their own curriculum by comparing it and the results of their JLPT with other universities.

As can be seen in Table 4, 30 percent of Japanese language learners in Thailand are in higher educational institutions. This number includes students who major in Japanese language, as well as students who take Japanese as an elective course. As university curricula vary, it is not easy to grasp the overall picture of Japanese language education in higher education in Thailand. When university professors evaluate their curriculum, they sometimes use the JLPT as an index to decide the level of instruction. In the next section, therefore, I will review the results of the JLPT from the past few decades to reveal the trend of Japanese language learning in Thailand.

The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test
The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) has been offered by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services since 1984 to evaluate Japanese language aptitude among non-native speakers. In the previous version of the test, which was administered until 2009, there were four levels (l to 4); but a new test, which was introduced in 2010, offers five levels (N1 to N5, with level N3 having been added as a new level between levels 2 and 3 of the old test). In 2008, 449,810 examinees (total for all levels) sat the test in 144 cities, in 51 countries and regions. In Thailand there were four test sites: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkla, and Khon Kaen; 15,846 examinees (total for all levels) sat the test (Japan Foundation 2009). The Japan Foundation publishes the number of applicants and examinees for each level by country every year, but the number of successful examinees from each country is not announced. For the purpose of this study, I use the total number of examinees of all levels in Thailand from the published data.

The number of JLPT examinees (and applications) in ASEAN countries from 1984 to 2008 is shown in Table 5. For the table, I calculated the rate of increase that compares the numbers with previous years in percentile. The cells in the table that indicate a rate of increase of more than 115 percent are shaded gray. Looking at the table, we can see that the rate of increase remains high (as shown by the shaded cells in the table) when the JLPT is first introduced in a country. In order to discern the trend in the popularity of Japanese language learning, I calculated the number of JLPT examinees per one million people in ASEAN countries (except Cambodia, Brunei, and Laos) and plotted this data on the semilog graph (Fig. 3) for every five years. If we look at the number of JLPT examinees adjusted by population in the ASEAN countries, Japanese language learning was most popular in Singapore—there were more than 877.2 Japanese language learners per one million people. Thailand was in second place, with 156.7 Japanese language learners per one million people in 2005.

Table 5 Number of Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Examinees in ASEAN Countries



Fig. 3 Number of JLPT Examinees/One Million Population (ASEAN Countries)

Note: Populations used in calculation were retrieved from World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision, Vol. 2 (United Nations, DESA 2009).

As we see in Table 5, Thailand has kept the rate of increase at a “high” percentage since the mid-1990s, which suggests that Japanese language learning has been popular since then. Fig. 3 also suggests that the number of JLPT examinees increased in the 1990s in Thailand. In the 1990s, manga started to be published under the license of Japanese publishers; the import of Japanese TV programs and animation increased after the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan; and J-Rock and J-Pop became popular in Thailand as well as in other Asian countries. The increasing growth of Japanese language learning during the 1990s coincided with the influx of cultural products from Japan, which suggests that many Thai people were exposed to Japanese cultural products during the decade and many of them started learning Japanese. Furthermore, Fig. 3 indicates that the influence of the Japanese language in Thailand has become more marked after the year 2000.

Textbook for Secondary Schools: Akiko to Tomodachi
In 2004, a new textbook for teaching Japanese in secondary schools was published by the Japan Foundation. The title of the textbook was Akiko to Tomodachi. The textbook was a collaborative effort by university professors, secondary school teachers, experts in Japanese language education, and the Japan Foundation (Bussaba 2004). As we have seen in this study, the number of Japanese learners in Thailand increased especially after the 1990s, and the demand for Japanese language teachers also became very high. In order to provide quality Japanese language textbooks for secondary schools, therefore, a special textbook writing project was started at the Japan Foundation in February 2000. Since the textbooks contain explanations and instructions in Thai, especially in the introductory volumes, Thai students and teachers can fully understand each step before they proceed to the next level (Bussaba et al. 2005).

Questionnaire Results

In this section, I will briefly review the results of the questionnaire to demonstrate the relationship between Japanese language learning and Japanese cultural products. Let us start with Table 6, which shows the age respondents started to learn Japanese. As we can see, 15 years old is the mode; students who started to learn Japanese between the ages of 15 and 16 make up 68 percent of respondents. This suggests the students started learning Japanese when they were in upper secondary school. Most of the students started to learn Japanese before they entered university, and the average duration of Japanese language learning was 5.26 years (N=78) at the time the questionnaire survey was carried out.

Table 6 J-Language Study Starting-Age Distribution


Motivation to Start Learning Japanese
The question I was most interested in asking students was, “What caused you to want to learn Japanese?” The question was intended to find out the students’ motivation to start learning the Japanese language. Some students wrote down multiple reasons that had caused them to start learning Japanese. As we can see in Table 7, there were 37 elements in their answers to the question, and I tried to group them into the following seven types: (1) “Japanese cultural products (JCP)” means that they started learning Japanese because they liked Japanese cultural products (mainly media products, such as manga, anime, games, movies, or music); (2) “Language (LNG)” means that they liked learning the language for itself; (3) “People (PPL)” means that they liked Japanese ­people or they wanted to learn the language in order to interact with Japanese people; (4) “Business (BSI)” means that they learned Japanese for the sake of a future career; (5) “Japanese food (JFD)” means that they started learning Japanese because they liked Japanese food; (6) “Travel experience to Japan (TRV)” means that their experiences traveling to Japan encouraged them to start learning Japanese or that they started learning the language because they wanted to visit Japan; (7) “Other (OTR)” is the category for everything else, which includes comments such as “I like Japanese culture” and “I was born in Japan.”

Table 7 Reasons for Learning Japanese


The survey results show that 68.1 percent of the comments indicate that the students started learning Japanese because they liked Japanese cultural products. From Doraemon to Utada Hikaru, I often heard the names of Japanese manga characters and idols when I asked the research informants and assistants what had motivated them to learn Japanese. I had already assumed that Japanese cultural products motivated Thai youths to start learning the Japanese language, and the questionnaire results supported this assumption.

“Good Experience with Japanese Language”
The purpose of the next question in the questionnaire was to ask about good experiences resulting from having acquired Japanese language ability: “Have you had any experiences that made you think Japanese language ability is an advantage or has benefits? If so, will you tell me about the incident(s)?” I wanted to know when and how the respondents thought the Japanese language would benefit their lives. I had already asked them about their motivations to start learning the language, and I wanted to know their opinions on learning Japanese. Therefore, I expected the replies to this question to be stories about incidents in which the respondents felt good about being able to speak Japanese. However, as shown in Table 8, many respondents wrote down their thoughts and opinions that had motivated them to start studying the language rather than specific incidents in their lives. By grouping their answers, I found that 23.7 percent of the answers to the question fell into the category of “communication ability (COM),” which means that the ability to communicate in Japanese itself was a “good experience.” The fact that respondents could communicate with Japanese people in Japanese seems to have been an important experience for them.

Table 8 Advantage of Being Able to Speak Japanese


Contrary to my expectation, 20.4 percent of answers fell into the category of “Japanese cultural product consumption (JCP),” such as “I can read Japanese in manga and games,” “I can understand the lyrics of J-Pop songs,” and so on. At first, I was a little surprised to see this type of response, because “being able to read Japanese” is too obvious a response. I had expected to be told stories about personal incidents that related to the individuals. I also thought that the respondents who wrote other answers might have felt confident enough to be able to read Japanese manga or text in games, since for 68.1 percent of them the consumption of Japanese cultural products was the motivation to start learning the language in the first place. Consequently, I assumed that the respondents who wrote answers in the JCP category could not think of any incident that would fulfill the requirement of the question.

Another category, which I did not expect to see but found interesting, was “desire to help Japanese people (HLP).” This category is closer to the previous category (COM) in terms of communication with Japanese people. However, the category HLP focuses on the altruistic attitude of respondents, while the category COM focuses on communication itself. When I read such answers as “I can help Japanese tourists and give them directions in Japanese” and “Japanese people are not good at English, so I can help them if I can speak in Japanese,” I remembered that Chulalongkorn University is located right next to Siam Square, which is the center of shopping and dining in Bangkok. Because there are many Japanese tourists visiting the area every day, I assumed that the students had helped Japanese tourists on the streets and that these encounters had become an important undertaking for them.

There were other kinds of answers as well, which fell into the categories of “travel to Japan (TRV),” “advantage for work (BSI),” and “language (LNG).” In summary, I realized that many of the answers reflected the students’ motivation to continue learning the Japanese language. The category JCP may have been the initial incentive to begin learning the language for the majority of students, but as they continued learning they accumulated new experiences related to the language and some of them discovered an additional motivation to learn Japanese.

“Learning Another Foreign Language?”
In the next question, I asked whether the respondents were learning other foreign languages besides Japanese. The question inquired about the foreign language(s) that they were learning at the time of the questionnaire. So, if they were too busy learning Japanese, for instance, their answers might have been “none” or they might have left the space blank. In Table 9, the results show that English (44.7 percent) was the most popular foreign language. The second-most popular foreign language was Korean (14.9 percent), and the third was Chinese (13.8 percent). There were other foreign languages mentioned in the answers, but most of those languages had only a few learners. Also, a few students who liked to study foreign languages replied that they were studying more than two foreign languages besides Japanese—Arabic, Burmese, and so on.

Table 9 Other Foreign Language


To demonstrate the attitudes of respondents toward foreign language studies, I also asked about the students’ reasons for studying foreign languages. The results have been compiled in Table 10. The reasons listed in Table 10 are for all the languages listed in Table 9. As I reviewed the answers, I noticed that many students who were studying English wrote reasons such as “for future work,” “to communicate with foreigners,” “as basic education,” and “useful.” In Thailand, English language education starts from the first grade in primary school as “preparatory English” class, and it continues throughout students’ basic education (Thailand, Ministry of Education 2008). In higher education, required subjects vary according to institutional curricula, but many students realize the importance of English as a lingua franca and continue learning it.

Table 10 Reasons for Studying a Foreign Language


The answer “I like K-Pop music” is obviously a reason to study Korean. As Korean idols have become popular in Thailand in recent years, the Korean language has been attracting people who like to consume Korean cultural products. On the other hand, respondents were learning Chinese “for future work,” because it was “useful,” and because they “want to learn many foreign languages,” all of which are reasons unrelated to Chinese cultural products.

“Has Your Life Changed since You Started to Learn Japanese?”
Table 11 contains a list of answers to the question “Has your life changed since you started to learn Japanese?” By asking this question, I aimed to find out whether the respondents’ lives had changed in terms of the consumption of Japanese cultural products and their relationships with Japan and Japanese people. The answers were grouped into seven categories: (1) relationships with Japanese people (JPN), (2) Japanese cultural products (JCP), (3) business-related changes (BSI), (4) knowledge about Japan (KNW), (5) language ability (LNG), (6) lifestyle change (LSC), and (7) travel experience to Japan (TRV).

Table 11 Changes in Life after Japanese Language Study


As we can see, 30.3 percent of answers were in the JPN category. The respondents thought their relationships with Japanese people had changed after they started learning Japanese. In fact, 24 respondents answered that they had made Japanese friends, and one student said she had got a Japanese boyfriend, which shows that Japanese people became closer and more accessible for them after they started learning the Japanese language.

Another popular answer was “I can understand the language when I see Japanese movies,” which belongs in the JCP category. As we have already seen, 68.1 percent of answers in Table 7 indicated that the respondents started learning Japanese because they liked consuming Japanese cultural products. However, before they started learning the language, they consumed Japanese cultural products in their native Thai language. For the students, therefore, being able to watch Japanese movies in Japanese is an achievement that they attained and should be regarded as an important change.

Answers in the BSI category, such as “I can find a part-time job with a good salary,” indicate the advantage of having Japanese language ability. The importance of Japanese language ability in searching for jobs is probably recognized by most of the respondents, since most graduates having a Japanese-language major will work in Japanese companies. According to surveys conducted at Thammasat University, among 500 graduates who obtained a degree with a Japanese-language major between 1986 and 2000, 81.6 percent secured jobs at Japanese companies; in 2007, 91.18 percent of graduates entered Japanese companies as translators, interpreters, secretaries, and so on (Somkiat 2008). Even before they graduate from university, Japanese-major students in Thailand know that Japanese language proficiency will be an advantage in obtaining a good job and receiving good remuneration.

The other answers in the categories “knowledge about Japan” and “language ability” are also important in terms of the consumption of Japanese cultural products. Through the process of reading information about Japan in Japanese and accumulating knowledge about Japan with their Japanese language ability, the students will form a better understanding about Japan and its people, which will develop new interests in other Japanese cultural products and various places in Japan.

Japanese Cultural Products and Japanese Language
In the next question, I listed 10 Japanese cultural products—(1) manga, (2) anime, (3) Japanese TV dramas, (4) Japanese TV variety programs, (5) J-Pop music, (6) Japanese idols, (7) Japanese games, (8) cosplay, (9) Japanese food, and (10) Japanese fashion—and asked respondents whether they liked the products “before” or “after” they started learning the Japanese language. The respondents could mark “Never” if they had never tried the product and “Don’t like” if they didn’t like the product at all. The results are compiled in Table 12.

Table 12 Consumption of JCP and Japanese Language Learning


“Before” was marked most often in regard to Japanese cultural products except “cosplay,” which only 12 percent of respondents stated that they liked before they started learning Japanese. Even if we include the people who marked “after,” only 29 percent of respondents liked cosplay, which means it was the least popular among the 10 Japanese cultural products. Unlike other cultural products, cosplay is a participatory culture: people have to participate in manga and anime conventions. As cosplay is not something that can be consumed at home, the results seem to show the real popularity of cosplay.

In regard to manga and anime, we can see that many of the respondents liked these products before they started learning Japanese. For manga, 82.1 percent answered they liked them before and only 6.4 percent answered they liked them after; for anime, 69.2 percent said “before” and only 9 percent said “after,” which means that 88.5 percent of respondents liked manga and 78.2 percent liked anime. Also, we have already seen that 92.3 percent of respondents started learning Japanese before they turned 17 years old (Table 6), and the results from Table 12 suggest that manga and anime were already popular among the respondents while they were attending secondary school.

The questionnaire results for Japanese games appear to be similar to those for manga and anime, although games were not as popular as the other two products. A total of 62.8 percent of respondents replied that they liked games before they started learning Japanese and 9 percent started liking Japanese games after they began learning Japanese. A possible reason for Japanese games being less popular among secondary school students (compared to manga and anime) is the cost of game machines and software. While manga books are sold for about 40 baht on the streets, and Japanese anime can be watched on television for free, game machines such as the PlayStation 3 and Wii cost from several thousand baht to more than 10,000 baht (approximately US$200–300). Furthermore, in order to play games, it is necessary to connect game machines to television sets, and there may be times when parents do not allow their children to play games at home. Moreover, the table shows that 15.4 percent of respondents answered that they “don’t like” games, which may simply mean that games are less popular among Thai youths.

In Table 12, it is also important to note that percentages of “after” as a response on the questionnaire for J-TV drama and J-TV variety programs were 38.5 percent and 39.7 percent respectively. The percentages demonstrate that many respondents started l­iking Japanese television programs after they started learning Japanese. As more than 40 percent of respondents liked Japanese TV dramas and variety programs before they started learning Japanese, Japanese TV programs could be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the Japanese language. From these results, however, it seems that the respondents became more interested in Japan after they started learning Japanese, which made many of the respondents start watching Japanese television programs in order to see scenes of contemporary Japan and Japanese modern lifestyles in the dramas, and to find out the latest information about Japanese society and culture in variety programs.

There is a close relationship between the cultural products J-Pop music and J-Idols. The category of “J-Idols” includes J-Pop music idols as well as young actors and actresses. On the other hand, when we say “J-Pop music,” the category includes music artists who are not called “idols” (as well as young singers who are “J-Pop Idols”). When it comes to J-Pop music, 55.1 percent of respondents answered that they liked J-Pop before they started learning Japanese and 17.9 percent said they liked it after they started learning Japanese. As for J-Idols, 39.7 percent of respondents said they liked them before they started learning Japanese, and 12.8 percent said they liked them after they started learning the language. These results suggest that respondents (17.9 percent in the case of J-Pop music and 12.8 percent in the case of J-Idol) may have been exposed to cultural products after they started learning Japanese and may have been influenced to like these products by other Japanese learners.

Of the respondents, 85.9 percent appreciated Japanese food before they started learning Japanese and 11.5 percent liked it after Japanese language learning, which means that a total of 97.4 percent of respondents liked Japanese food. Just as in the case of manga, Japanese food has been accepted by the majority of Thai people, as evidenced by the large number of Japanese restaurants in Bangkok and the many supermarkets carry­ing Japanese food products that are served at Thai families’ dinner tables. The results indicate that most secondary school students in Thailand liked Japanese food before they began learning Japanese.

Table 12 also reveals that Japanese fashion is less popular among secondary school students. Among the respondents, 44.9 percent answered that they liked Japanese fashion before they started learning Japanese, while 21.8 percent said they liked it after they started learning Japanese. The respondents who liked Japanese TV dramas, Japanese TV variety programs, J-Pop music, and J-Idols before they started learning Japanese might have been exposed to Japanese fashion before Japanese language learning. For the most part, Japanese fashion clothes may not be easy to obtain for secondary school students in Thailand, as they are sold only in certain boutiques and stores in the main cities and have limited availability in small towns and villages. The clothes are also more expensive in small towns and villages than local or casual clothes. Students of ­Chulalongkorn University, on the other hand, inevitably see Japanese fashion clothes every day because Siam Square, a shopping area located next to the university, is the center of J-Fashion in Bangkok.

“Favorite Japanese Cultural Product after Starting Language Learning”
As a supplement to the previous question, I asked the respondents whether there was any Japanese cultural product that they became very interested in after they began learning the Japanese language. The results are shown in Table 13. Some respondents wrote more than two answers to the question. The most frequent answer to this question was “music.” When we think of Japanese cultural products with high percentages in the “After” column of Table 12, we might expect “TV dramas,” “TV variety programs,” “fashion,” and “music” to be higher in Table 13. The results show that music is the highest in percentage; however, the other three cultural products also became favorites after the respondents started to learn Japanese.

Table 13 More Interested after Japanese Language Study


Japanese Cuisine/Food
As we have already seen, Japanese cuisine was popular among respondents even before they started learning the Japanese language. In order to see how much they would ordinarily consume Japanese food in their everyday lives as university students, I asked the question “How often do you eat Japanese dishes per month?” As shown in Fig. 4, the minimum was 0.5 times per month and the maximum was 20 times per month. The mode of the frequency distribution was 3 times per month, which was the response of 15 students; and the average frequency was 3.934 times per month, which means that respondents ate Japanese dishes approximately once a week.


Fig. 4 How Often Do You Eat Japanese Dishes? /Month


Motivation for Japanese Language Learners
In Table 7, we saw that 68.1 percent of the answers were in the JCP category, which proved that an interest in Japanese cultural products motivated many of the respondents to start learning Japanese. For instance, if a student started to learn Japanese in order to read a J-Pop idol’s blog on the Internet, the motivation may be classified as “instru­mental,” as the language is a tool to obtain information available in Japanese. But closer observation may reveal that the student wanted to read the blog because he/she was interested in the J-Pop idol, and his/her interest in J-Pop music might be derived from an interest in Japan, the country. In such a case, the desire to read the blog has underlying reasons—the student’s interest in Japan and its culture—and may be classified as “integrative.”

Considering the interrelatedness of Japanese cultural products and other factors about Japan, the classification into instrumental and integrative orientations seems too vague to be used in the analyses of the motivation of respondents in this study. Richard Clément and Bastian Kruidenier also point out the ambiguities in definitions of these orientations, as well as the influence of the social milieu, which causes variances in classification among scholars (Clément and Kruidenier 1983, 274–276). In their study to assess the influence of ethnicity, milieu, and target language on the emergence of orientations to second language acquisition, they suggested that four orientations are common to all second language student groups: (1) travel, (2) friendship, (3) knowledge, and (4) the instrumental orientations (ibid., 286).

In this research, many of the respondents started to learn Japanese because they were motivated to consume Japanese cultural products. As they continued learning the language, then, they seemed to gain more motivation for learning the language, which may be classified in any of the four orientations. But since each individual had multiple reasons for their motivation to learn Japanese, it is not possible to classify a student’s motivation in a single orientation. Consumers of Japanese cultural products are always influenced by trends in Japanese pop culture, which may offer them a new motivation for learning Japanese. As theories of second language acquisition are focused mainly on classroom settings, they tend to overlook the complexities of the learners’ social milieu.

Despite the ambiguity and difficulty in defining or classifying the various motivations of Japanese language learners, however, the discussions suggest that having a clear and strong motivation for learning a second language could well be an important factor in becoming a successful language learner. It is important to note that the respondents in this research were part of an elite in terms of Japanese language learning, since ­Chulalongkorn University is the highest-ranking university in Thailand and the Japanese language department admits only 35 students every year (Table 14). As we have seen in the study, many of the respondents started to learn Japanese because of their interest in Japanese cultural products and many of them became interested in further Japanese cultural products after they started to learn Japanese. This suggests that Japanese cultural products are not only a motivation to start learning Japanese but also a motivator to continue learning. Finding new Japanese cultural products of interest while they are learning Japanese, the students continuously have new sources of motivation to learn the language, which consequently leads them to be successful learners of the language. It is hoped that future research will attempt to prove such assumptions and assess the power of Japanese cultural products as a source of motivation in becoming a successful learner of the Japanese language.

Table 14 Number of Graduates, Chulalongkorn University, Faculty of Arts


The Virtuous Cycle of Language Learning and the Consumption of Cultural Products
At the beginning of this study, I posed two hypotheses in order to try to disclose the relationship between the consumption of Japanese cultural products and Japanese language learning: (1) exposure to Japanese cultural products induces Japanese language learning, and (2) Japanese language learning induces the consumption of other Japanese cultural products. The first hypothesis has been tested, as we have already discussed at several junctures in this study, and the results in Table 7 prove that 68.1 percent of respondents started learning the Japanese language because of Japanese cultural products.

Tables 12 and 13 suggest that Japanese language learning may result in the consumption of Japanese cultural products, implying that there is an explanation underlying the second hypothesis. We have seen that all the Japanese cultural products listed in Table 12 have some respondents who started liking them “after” commencing Japanese language learning. Among the Japanese cultural products, TV dramas and TV variety programs gained a particularly large number of new fans after the respondents started learning Japanese, while J-Pop, J-Idol, cosplay, J-Food, and J-Fashion attracted some new consumers from among the respondents. If we study Table 13 closely, we see that respondents tended to become more interested in music, TV variety programs, and anime after starting to learn Japanese. The results suggest that Japanese language learning reinforced the interest in Japanese cultural products that the respondents had before they started learning Japanese, and that increased their motivation to learn the language.

Today, young Thai people are raised in an environment in which they are exposed to an abundance of Japanese culture. Cultural carriers, such as sojourners from Japan and Japanophiles in Thailand, increase Japan’s presence in Thailand and make Thai ­people more familiar with Japan. The cultural proximity, including the physical features and the imagery of Japan in the mass media, also makes Thai people think that Japan and Thailand have similarities in culture. Furthermore, the influx of Japanese culture through various channels such as media, products, or people reinforces a favorable attitude toward Japan. Encounters with, and the attraction of, Japanese cultural products in such an environment often motivate young Thais to start learning Japanese.

In Thailand, there are numerous opportunities for young people to start learning the Japanese language. The fact that Japanese is one of the subjects in university entrance examinations in Thailand offers secondary school students a good reason to start learning Japanese, and the Japanese language education system in Thailand provides a good environment for students to learn the language. Then, while they are learning Japanese, they are exposed to new Japanese cultural products through Japanese teachers, school friends, and Japanese friends they make. As they discover new Japanese cultural products that they like, they are motivated to continue learning the Japanese language, which furnishes them with even more opportunities to encounter additional Japanese cultural products.

The continuous cycle (of interests in learning the Japanese language and in consuming Japanese cultural products continuously enhancing each other) can be called the “virtuous cycle model” (Fig. 5). The cycle describes Thai youths’ experiences in consuming Japanese cultural products and learning Japanese in the present day. For example, when a student becomes interested in manga (JCP 1), the interest will be a motivation to learn the Japanese language. After the student starts to learn Japanese, he or she may become interested in J-Pop (JCP 2), which may motivate the student to learn the language with even greater enthusiasm. Later, as the student’s language ability improves, the student may in turn become interested in Japanese dramas and movies (JCP 3). The encounters with new Japanese cultural products become motivators for the student to continue learning the language, and they also enhance the student’s interest in Japan and its culture.


Fig. 5 The Virtuous Cycle Model (The Relationship between JCP and Japanese Language Learning)

It is important to note, however, that the sample in this research is a group of elite university students who are successful learners of Japanese. They may be leaders in the consumption of Japanese cultural products in Thailand, as the university is located in the center of Bangkok, where Japanese cultural products and Japanese culture can be found more easily than in the provincial areas of the country. It is hoped, therefore, that the cultural consumption model for other consumers of Japanese cultural products—those who have different backgrounds in terms of location and socioeconomic status—will be constructed in future studies.

Concluding Remarks

The Same Cultural Zone
The notion of the “cultural discount” in media studies suggests that the value of Japanese cultural products could be diminished in Thailand, since Japan and Thailand are not in the same geolinguistic region. In this study, however, the values of Japanese cultural products do not seem to depreciate in Thailand; rather, they seem to be celebrated widely by Thai youths. Thus, the idea of “cultural discount” does not seem to work in the case of Japanese cultural products in Thailand, probably because there are no comparable quality cultural products among either domestic or other foreign products and also because of the cultural environment of the country.

Although Japan and Thailand are not in the same geolinguistic region, young people in Thailand are familiar with Japanese youth culture thanks to the abundant exposure to Japanese cultural products in everyday life. The proliferation of Japanese cultural products in Thailand during the last few decades has led Thai people to feel comfortable and familiar with Japan and Japanese culture. For instance, today most Thai people start reading manga and watching anime in early childhood, and therefore manga and anime may not be perceived as foreign. I asked one of my informants (a university student), “Do Thai children have opportunities to see and get to know Japanese culture through manga and anime?” I was referring to scenes in anime, for example, where people take off their shoes at the entrance of houses and tatami mats are laid out on the floor. She replied, “Yes, I think they do. But they may not be conscious that they are seeing Japanese culture” (Personal communication, March 10, 2010). This suggests that Thai youths are exposed to Japanese culture subconsciously and that they learn about Japanese culture without realizing it, which would indicate the impreciseness of the argument that major Japanese cultural products are characterized as “culturally odorless” (Iwabuchi 2002, 94). Thai youths consume Japanese cultural products not because those products are “culturally odorless,” but because the “Japanese odor” does not feel foreign to them.

In the discourse on the transnational consumption of television dramas, Ien Ang points to the important role of cultural proximity between two countries, rather than just arbitrary consumption by an audience (Ang 2003, 290). Ang points to the cultural proximity between Australia and the UK as a reason for the popularity of television dramas in both countries. In the global world, according to Ang, culture is not diffused homo­geneously but unevenly—sometimes overlapping, creating certain regions of trans­national cultural proximity and similarity (“transnational cultural zones”) (ibid.; 2004, 305). The example of Australia and the UK is similar to the notion of the geolinguistic region, as these countries are both English speaking. However, if we put more emphasis on the common values in the cultures of different countries, Japan and Thailand have common values in terms of pop culture, subculture, and youth culture, which consequently places them in the same cultural zone. Despite the difference in the languages spoken and the geographical distance between the two countries, the youth culture of Thailand seems to have adopted many elements of Japanese youth culture; this forms the foundation for the continuous cycle of consumption of Japanese cultural products in Thailand.

Emergent Processes of Language Acquisition

Thought development is determined by language, i.e., by the linguistic tools of thought and by the sociocultural experience of the child. Essentially, the development of inner speech depends on outside factors; the development of logic in the child, as Piaget’s studies have shown, is a direct function of his socialized speech. The child’s intellectual growth is contingent on his mastering the social means of thought, that is, language. (Vygotsky 1986, 94)

Lev Vygotsky’s notion of first language acquisition and the development of logic in a child can be applied to the discussion of second language acquisition, revealing a new layer of understanding about the culture of the second language and the consumption of cultural products. In fact, if we replace “Thought development” with “Understanding of another culture” in Vygotsky’s discussion, the above statement can point to the importance of language in understanding other cultures. Before a person starts to acquire a second language (as is the case with the first language), language acquisition and understanding of the other culture are entirely different processes. But after one begins learning a second language—at some point in the process of learning the language—language and thought start interacting. Through these interactions, then, language learning helps develop an understanding of the culture, and cultural understanding enhances learning of the second language.

In an illustration of the relationship between language learning and an understanding of culture, a female student majoring in economics at Thammasat University once told me that while she was studying at Kyoto University as part of an exchange program, she learned that Japanese people use different “name honorifics” depending on the speaker’s relationship with other people. She also learned that these honorifics reflect the speaker’s respect toward the person (Personal communication, July 14, 2011). For example, the honorific sama is usually used to express respect toward a person, and it suggests that the speaker does not have a close relationship with that person. On the other hand, the honorific chan is used to address someone the speaker considers to be very close, and it also often expresses fondness or a feeling of affection toward the person. When the Thai student learned that there were different kinds of name honorifics in Japanese, she realized that when selecting the appropriate name honorific to use in each particular situation, Japanese people take into account the interpersonal relationship with the person. Furthermore, once the Thai student started to understand how Japanese people maintain social distance and manage interpersonal relationships with others, she began to understand which name honorific was required in each particular situation.

To cite another example, a female student majoring in Japanese at Chulalongkorn University told me that she learned about the concept of uchi (meaning one’s home or one’s closest inner circle) and soto (meaning “others outside” or those who are outside uchi) in Japanese culture during the course of her language studies. She realized the importance of this concept when trying to understand the different forms in Japanese speech, such as the humble form (kenjogo), the honorific form (sonkeigo), and the polite form (teineigo) (Personal communication, January 23, 2012). The spatial distinction between uchi and soto may not be unique to Japanese culture, but Robert Sukle argues that the relationship between the distinction of uchi/soto and linguistic forms is found to exist in Japanese expressions (Sukle 1994). It is important to note that beyond the various linguistic discussions, the Thai student was able to learn the linguistic forms through practicing speaking Japanese and that she came to understand that a comprehension of the distinction of uchi/soto plays an important role in improving Japanese proficiency. As we can see in these examples, one key to successful language learning appears to be the synergistic effect of the interaction between language learning and an understanding of culture.

A speech act may therefore be culturally defined as a complaint, a compliment, an apology, or a refusal, and competent native speakers will have little difficulty in identifying them as such. A given speech act or event is, as Hymes points out, conditioned by rules of conduct and interpretation, and the ability to use these rules appropriately is a critical part of the communicative competence of the native speaker. (Wolfson 1989, 7)

In her explanation of the speech act in sociolinguistics theory, Nessa Wolfson points out that cultural definitions of speech—which are conditioned by the rules of the society that the speaker belongs to—are necessary in order to interpret the meaning of speech. In other words, the interpretation of cultural definitions is communicative competence in the language. In concluding this study, I can confirm that the discussions throughout this research have convinced me that many young Thai people who participated in my research developed an interest in Japanese culture and cultural products as they started learning the Japanese language, and that this learning enhanced their consumption of Japanese culture and cultural products. In the consumption of Japanese cultural products in Thailand, therefore, Japanese language learning is the gateway to the virtuous cycle of Japanese cultural product consumption.

Accepted: March 22, 2012


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Vol. 2, No. 2, Nobpaon Rabibhadana and Yoko Hayami

Contents>> Vol. 2, No. 2

Seeking Haven and Seeking Jobs: Migrant Workers’ Networks in Two Thai Locales

Nobpaon Rabibhadana* and Yoko Hayami**

*ณพอร รพีพัฒน์, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 46 Shimoadachi-cho, Yoshida Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606–8501, Japan
**速水洋子, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

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

Thailand has seen a large increase in migrant workers from Myanmar since the 1990s. A constant flow of migrants arrive to seek refuge from dire circumstances in their homeland and/or to seek better work opportunities. They have adapted to changing state policy regarding their migrant status and work permits as well as to more immediate means of control. Previous works on this subject have tended either toward macro-level policy and economics, or more journalistic accounts of individual migrant experiences. Little attention has been paid to differences in the migrant processes and networks formed across the border and within the country.
 In this paper two locales, one on the border (Mae Sot) and one in the interior (Samut Songkhram), are compared based on interviews conducted with migrant workers on their mode of arrival, living and working conditions, migrant status and control, and how they form networks and relations within and across the border. By comparing the two locales, rather than emphasize how the state and geopolitical space define mobility we argue that transnational migrant workers formulate and define their space through adaptive networks in articulation with geopolitical factors as well as local socioeconomic and historical-cultural dynamics. The dynamics among macro policies, micro-level agency of migrants, and meso-level networks define each locale.

Keywords: migrant worker, Thailand, Myanmar, family, state policy, social network, state formation

I Introduction

There has been an increase in the number of migrants from Myanmar to Thailand since the late 1980s,1) spurred by Thailand’s rapid economic growth. Interviews conducted in the lowland Karen State, in the township of Pa-an, reveal that in the late 1980s the direction of migration among labor from Myanmar switched from westward toward Yangon to eastward over the mountains into Thailand (Hayami 2011). Each household had at least one member working in Thailand—in construction, fishery, agriculture, or manufacturing, or as domestic help. Migrant labor from Myanmar (as well as Cambodia and Laos) filled jobs that Thai workers considered “dirty, dangerous, and difficult.” The border zone may be regarded as an “economic dam,” where cheap labor keeps flowing in while their way into the interior is blocked. However, migrant workers also make their way into interior prefectures where working conditions as well as social and cultural contexts differ markedly from the border.

In this paper we study migrant laborers in two locales, one on the border (Mae Sot) and one in the interior (Samut Songkhram). By comparing the two locales, rather than unilaterally arguing on the manner in which state and geopolitical space define mobility, we suggest that transnational migrant workers formulate and define their space through adaptive networks in articulation with macro-level policies as well as local socioeconomic and historical-cultural dynamics.

Studies on migration have been carried out in the social sciences for over half a century, either in terms of rural to urban domestic migration, or the migration of Europeans and Asians to North America. The recent increase in migration to destinations formerly deemed “sending” countries has spurred renewed interest in the subject. Vari­ous approaches from multiple disciplines, beginning with the economic push and pull theories or dual labor market theory, world systems theory, and historical-structural analyses, have been employed to understand the phenomenon. It has become increasingly clear that a far more integrated perspective, which both incorporates the role of the state and pays attention to human agency, is necessary in order to view the migration systems and networks from a historical, political, and economic perspective, examining both ends of the flow and their linkages.

As a way of understanding migration, Caroline Brettell identified three levels of analysis (Brettell 2003, 2)—the macro, micro, and meso. The macro-level refers to the structural conditions that shape the migration flow and constitutes the political economy of the world market, interstate relationships of the countries involved, income differentials, the laws and practices of citizenship established by the state, larger ideological discourses, the demographic and ecological setting of population growth, availability of resources, and infrastructure. Transnational migration impacts the state policies of citizenship and sovereignty (Castles and Miller [1993] 2009), and states must regulate, control, and decide on how to deal with the influx and how to grant rights to immigrants. It is important to take note of changes in policies and regulations over time that control the entry and exit of migrants, which are affected by Thailand’s increasing demand for cheap labor.

In this regard, a key issue regarding borders and citizenship among migrant workers in Thailand is the registering of illegal migrants with work permits, a system that became institutionalized after 1992 (see next section) and which Pitch Pongsawat (2007) refers to as “border partial citizenship.” The politico-economic order is constituted as an ongoing process between state exercise of power to control the border, exploitative capitalist development, and illegal immigrant workers’ response to the situation, allowing the continued employment of migrant workers with low wages. This system contributes to the maintenance of an exploitative process. While registered worker status ostensibly grants “amnesty” to work in Thailand, workers are subject to search and street-level harassment by the police as well as exploitation by their employers, and their mobility is severely restricted.

In Pitch’s view, if “border” implies the ability of the state to demarcate the boundary, then the Thai state policy to extend the conferral of “amnesty” to provinces away from the border as a flexible way of procuring cheap and exploitable labor could be seen as a way of forming borders beyond the physical border. As the number of provinces where such amnesty was extended increased, the border expanded (ibid., 199). In this sense, the border extends into the lives of migrant workers in the interior parts of the country. Pitch’s poignant critique of state policies evaluates the manner in which macro-level policies affect micro-level responses. Despite his assertion of the “non-physical border” existing in the interior provinces, Pitch discusses only Mae Sot and Mae Sai, two border towns, and does not delve into the system as it operates in spaces other than the immediate physical border. This paper, on the other hand, looks at the practices and processes of migration both on the border and in the interior, to consider in what sense the latter is, or is not, merely an extension of the physical border.

Micro-level analysis looks at the agency, desires, and expectations of individual migrants, and how larger forces shape their decisions and actions. In her work on Filipino migrant workers, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (2001) points out that the transnational household must be seen as part of a larger extended family across borders. Transnational households are in many cases upheld by values of mutual help and support among extended family and depend on the resilience of such bonds. They also act as conduits of information and social networks and promote the continued flow of workers. This paper studies households as units of analysis, and reveals that these units are in fact part of a network that is dispersed across the border. Coping strategies are formulated within this network by utilizing opportunities in the different localities. Thus, micro-level analysis is inextricable from the meso-level.

According to Brettell, the set of social and symbolic ties and the resources inherent in these relations constitute the meso-level. While individual migrants seek to improve their lives and secure survival and autonomy, the decision to migrate is made in the context of a network of cultural and social ties. The meso-level is the relational dimension manifest in social networks, linking the areas of origin and destination (Massey et al. 1998). The networks provide the social capital and information that enable individual choices and agency within the constraints of macro structures, thus linking the three levels.

Social networks of migrants are contingent and emergent (Menjívar 2000, 36). Yet, migration studies have too often taken for granted “place” as given and static, from and to which people move. This reiterates the state’s perspective, where mobility is the anomaly and staying in one place is the norm. Toshio Iyotani suggests that the perspective might be reversed from understanding mobility between stable places, to understanding space from the point of view of mobility and migration (2007, 4). The focus of attention on network formation at the meso-level will allow us to look at space from a non-state perspective.

In his criticism of how social science theories have been dominated by state-­centered frameworks, Willem van Schendel makes a similar point regarding border zones specifically, by focusing on the flow of people, goods, and information. In order to free ourselves of this state-dominated framework, he suggests that we look not only at state-defined maps, but at the cognitive maps of those involved in the borderlands in which “pre-­border” and “post-border” maps are juxtaposed with the state-defined map (Van Schendel 2005). The pre-border map constitutes the network of relationships that preexisted and cuts across the state border, recognizing the social and cultural continuities inherent in it. These relationships, in the form of kinship and trade networks along with cultural and religious communities, not only persist despite state borders, but may provide security in the face of the division brought about by state-based maps. These pre-border relationships may enable adaptations to constraints brought by the state-defined borders by the creation of “post-border” maps. One attempt to look closely at these post-border maps is Lee Sang Kook’s study of migrant workers in Mae Sot (2007), which refers to the “border social system,” challenging prevailing notions of the sovereignty and social order of the state. Lee points out how informal institutions that are unique to the border constitute the political/economic space of the border.

The layered maps, from the perspective of the people who live on the border, allow us to look at the border not as a given static place, but as a space defined by an articulation between the state border, migrant processes, and networks and relations across borders, old and new. When viewed from this standpoint, the maps overlap. Rather than take for granted state-defined maps and look merely at the flow between states, we will look at migrant spaces both on the border and in the interior from the point of view of the inhabitants of those spaces as well as those involved in the flow.

In Thailand, studies on migrant labor began with the recognition of the increase in their influx in the early 1990s. The studies can be categorized mainly into three types. The first are studies that look at the changing state policies on immigration and migrant labor in the long term (Kritaya et al. 1997; Phanthip 1997). Kritaya et al. pointed out at an early stage that Thai society did not prevent the assimilation of people from other countries; however, Thais accepted foreigners as one of their own only under certain conditions. Kritaya and Kulapa (2009) also studied the effects of the policy change in 2008 on the hiring process of workers from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.

The second category constitutes studies that look at the conditions and realities of migrant workers. Some of these are statistical (Huguet and Sureeporn 2005; World Vision 2005), whereas others are more qualitative and descriptive of specific populations or issues, such as Chalermsak Ngaemngarm on the illegal Karen population in Mae Sot (1992), Sukhon Khaekprayuun on female workers in Samut Sakhon (2003), and ­Bussayarat Kaanjondit on unskilled migrant workers in Bangkok (2006). Nwet Kay Khine (2007) as well as Aree Jampaklay and Sirinan Kittisuksathit (2009) study remittance ­patterns, and Zaw Aung discusses Burmese labor rights protection and movements in Mae Sot (2010).

The third category are studies that analyze the factors that cause migration ­(Srinakhon 2000; Phassakorn 2004), mostly concentrating on the border situation at Mae Sot. Toshihiro Kudo focuses on Mae Sot, situated on the East-West Economic Corridor, and how industries have opted to stay on the Thai side of the border because of its infrastructure (availability of electricity, and roads that allow materials and products to be transported easily) and cheap labor (Kudo 2007).

In an integrated approach, Supang Chantavanich studies the impact of transnational migration on the border community in Mae Sot, examining the economic, social, cultural, political/legal, and health impacts of the increasing labor migration (Supang 2008). Dennis Arnold also examines the political economy of Mae Sot, with an eye on local and state-level authorities and agencies that operate to maintain the Special Border Economic Zone, the legitimizing of cheap labor and labor conditions, and how workers have coped in the face of this (Arnold and Hewison 2005; Arnold 2007).

The lens through which migrant workers in Thailand have been viewed thus far has been focused either on the border areas or on the perception that migrant workers are one marginalized category vis-à-vis state regulations. In social science discussions since the early years of the twenty-first century, there has been an emphasis on transnational space created by migrant networks (Faist 2000; Brettell 2003; Castles and Miller [1993] 2009). This has not been fully addressed in studies in Thailand, or in mainland Southeast Asia in general.2) In Southeast Asia, transnational networks are created literally across borders. The physical border itself is a political, sociocultural, and historical issue. This paper will reveal that the problems that migrant workers face, and the adaptations they experience, are not necessarily the same on the border as in the interior. It is the dynamics between migrant mobility patterns, their adaptive strategies, and the local historical development of sociocultural, economic, and political factors that shape multilayered space not only across the border but also within the same state-defined space.

This paper is based primarily on fieldwork conducted in two locations: Mae Sot and Phop Phra in Tak Province, and the provincial headquarters of Samut Songkhram (Fig. 1). A total of 18 interviews were conducted in Tak: four in rural villages on the road between Mae Sot and Phop Phra, and the rest in three different neighborhoods within the town of Mae Sot. In Samut Songkhram, 17 interviews were conducted in several neighborhoods, all in the central district of the provincial capital (Table 1).3)


Fig. 1 Map of the Cross-border Region

Table 1 Thirty-five Interviewees from Mae Sot and Samut Songkhram


After a brief overview of state regulations, especially those in Thailand, and an introduction to the two study locales—one on the border and the other in the interior—the main part of this paper will be based on interviews conducted in the two locales regarding the mode of arrival of migrants to Thailand, work conditions, migrant status, social networks and family formation, and cultural adaptation.

II Background in Myanmar and Decision to Migrate to Thailand:Evolving Policies in Thailand

Laws governing the movement of people across borders were instituted in Thailand in 1950. Continuous changes and additions have been made since then with regard to laws and policies that control people’s movements.4) The Immigration Act 1979, amended from 1950, is still primarily in effect (subsequent revisions pertained to details such as the immigration fee). The Alien Occupation Act, which aimed to control alien workers and reserve job opportunities for Thai citizens, was launched during the revolutionary council in 1972.5) In 1973, the law restricted aliens and foreign workers to 39 types of jobs. Up to 1978, the major concern in Thailand was national security and stability.

The Thai government took up a policy of “constructive engagement” with Myanmar that began during General Chatichai Choonhavan’s administration (1988–91). Thai workers who were involved in the industrial and agricultural sectors began shifting to higher-paying work in the city, creating a demand for cheap labor. As the cost of labor increased during Thailand’s boom decade (1986–96), particularly in 1991 and later when real wages grew 8 percent a year, an increasing number of Myanmar workers migrated to Thailand to take up low-wage jobs. Jobs in fishery and seafood processing, plantations and agriculture, domestic work, and factories were often shunned by local Thais, and consequently the Thai economy became increasingly reliant on cheap migrant labor.

In 1992, Thailand took its first steps toward the adoption of an immigration policy for unskilled foreign workers by issuing short-term work permits in nine prefectures bordering Myanmar. Immigration law declared all migrant labor illegal, but workers were given permission to work by registering annually. Many anomalies cropped up as a consequence of this. First, in this system, workers were registered by a single employer and were not permitted to change employers unless they were re-registered by paying another full fee. Second, registration took place only twice a year, which rendered illegal those workers who entered the workforce in the interim period between the two registrations. Third, employers generally paid for the work permits of migrant laborers and deducted the amount from their wages in monthly installments. However, most small businesses and farms could not afford to pay the fees, and thus a large number of workers remained unregistered. Under such circumstances, both employee and employer were potentially vulnerable to harassment and extortion by the authorities. Fourth, those employers who did pay for the permits often held on to the original copy to maintain control of the workers for fear of losing them before the fee was repaid. This meant that workers were often unable to access health care and were subject to deportation because photocopies of documents were not recognized by the authorities. Fifth, not all incoming workers were aware of the registration procedure. Hence, migrant workers were faced with the constant threat of deportation with or without work permits, extortion by police and officials, heavy debts to the agents who negotiated their jobs leading to bonded labor, restriction of freedom of movement, and lack of health care. Their inability to speak Thai as well as their lack of information and awareness of labor and human rights added to their plight.

Subsequently, the laws aimed at controlling alien workers were revised with a gradual emphasis on human rights. This involved the opening up of previously restricted work areas, and the granting of employee rights and options to migrant workers.6) In 1996, the Thai government launched a regulation under the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare that allowed foreign labor to enter the country legally, and to work under provincial restrictions and requirements. A significant number of migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar were registered with the Department of Employment. They could now work in 39 (later 43) provinces in 7 (later 11) industries. This is what Pitch (2007) refers to as the extension of the border beyond the physical border. In 1998 the Labor Protection Law was enacted, and immigrant workers came under the control of labor welfare and the labor court so they could directly sue on issues related to labor protection.

In 2001 a new labor registration was instituted under Prime Minister Thaksin ­Shinawatra, when 560,000 laborers were registered in two months. Of this number, 40,000 were in Mae Sot. The annual cost of registration per worker was 4,500 baht, and it conferred on each worker the right to the 30 baht medical system. However, from the perspective of the workers, the economic and social costs of registration surpassed its merits.

In 2003, an MOU was signed to allow workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar to register in Thailand, yet it took a long time to negotiate the details between Myanmar and Thailand. The Myanmar government recognized the importance of foreign exchange remittances. It had implemented overseas employment since 1999, and official employment agencies had sprung up, sending workers to other countries in Southeast Asia as well as to the Middle East. The Myanmar government attempted to control remittance flows by sanctioning remittances through government banks and taking a 10 percent service fee on the transactions. Meanwhile, the black market for international transfers flourished. In 2005, Myanmar also strengthened its efforts to institutionalize migrant workers in other countries (Malaysia, Singapore, the Middle East, Korea, and Japan), and immigration offices were set up at three major points along the Thai-Myanmar border: Myawaddy (opposite Mae Sot), Tachileik (opposite Mae Sai), and Kaukthaung (opposite Ranong). In the same year, the Thai government executed a royal decree7) allowing illegal aliens to work without a restriction on their numbers.

In 2008, the Alien Occupation Act8) was revised to take into consideration and recognize that alien workers were an important factor in the economic progress of Thailand, explicitly stating that alien workers helped to drive the Thai economy. Moreover, the Thai and Myanmar governments agreed to carry out “nationality verification,” a process through which those with verified nationality could receive temporary passports.9)

In 2009, Thailand reported that there were a total of 1.3 million registered workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos who resided illegally in the country and needed further verification of nationality to become legal migrants by February 2010. Migrant workers who failed to complete the registration process within the specified time period would be deported from the kingdom. However, one month before the deadline, only a small number of migrant workers had completed the identification process. Results from the verification of the nationality of workers from Myanmar as on 13 February 2010 showed a total of 26,902 migrants who went through the process at the three centers: 7,899 in Tachileik, 10,461 in Myawaddy, and 8,542 in Kaukthaung. There was an atmos­phere of fear in the migrant community generated by a lack of information and an unclear understanding of the intent of the procedure, compounded by the workers’ inability to pay the agents. Consequently, the ministry extended the time for nationality verification until the end of 2012.10)

Mae Sot
The five districts along the border in Tak Province (Mae Sot, Phop Phra, Tha Song Yang, Mae Ramat, and Umphang) cover about 300 kilometers of border with forested hills and rivers. Historically, the area was a strategic point in the war and trade route from Mon country in Burma to Siam. Tak (Raheng) was the outpost of the Sukhothai principality. Prior to the imposition of the modern border, the area was a vibrant economic frontier since Britain started to explore the wealth of the region, especially the teak forests, as well as trade routes connecting its colonies to larger markets in China. When Thai King Rama III opened commercial dialogue with British Burma and conducted a survey of the area, the governor of Raheng pointed out 11 caravan routes cutting through the hills beside the Moei River and terminating at Moulmein. New forms of communication were implemented or proposed along this route, such as a postal service and a telegraph line.

Mae Sot was unclaimed prior to the demarcation of the border. Officers from Siam and Burma sometimes passed by to demand tribute from local Karen. This became the first area where the modern border agreement between British Burma and Siam was established in 1868. What had been forest settlements inhabited by Karen were promoted to a modern administrative town in 1898, bringing a gradual influx of the northern Thai population. Logging and border trade became key activities, and the market, which was frequented by Yunnanese Chinese Haw caravans, used British Indian currency. The city municipality of Mae Sot was founded in 1937. It is because of these historical and ethnic connections that to this day there are formal and informal networks of Karen, especially networks based on religious activities such as through the church or the Buddhist temple, and some based on political factions as well.

The town began to prosper in the 1970s, as it became the center of the black market border trade by the Karen National Union. Until the 1980s, the union controlled all routes and trade connecting Mae Sot to Yangon. On the Thai side, counterinsurgency brought about the development of infrastructure, and the road from Bangkok to Tak was completed in 1970. Whereas economic activities in Mae Sot had previously depended more on the Burmese town of Myawaddy, the political situation in Burma caused the center of urban development to shift to the Thai side.

In 1988, the movement for democracy in Burma sent students to the border. After Thai Prime Minister Chatichai’s declaration of “constructive engagement” the same year, factories began to spring up in Mae Sot and an increasing number of Burmese workers migrated across to take up low-wage jobs. In 1993 three provinces, including Tak, were designated as special investment promotion zones. Factory construction along the ­border was encouraged, with tax and duty privileges offered.

After the 1995 fall of Manerplaw, the headquarters of the Karen National Union on the Myanmar side, the Thai government enhanced economic activities along the border. The Burmese regime controlled Myawaddy, under the influence of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen faction that was aligned with the regime.11) This was the turning point in Mae Sot’s character and industrialization. In 1995, industrial investors arrived to employ the large pool of illegal migrant workers. The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge was completed in 1997, and Burmese citizens gained the right to cross the bridge to Mae Sot without passports for a one-day stay.12) It was also in the late 1990s that former student activists from Myanmar began to get involved in migrant labor issues. A migrant workers’ rights group called the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association was formed in 1999.

In the 1990s Mae Sot was included in the Thailand Board of Investment’s zone 3, which includes zones in the peripheries with tax privileges. It is also strategically located on the East-West Economic Corridor of the Greater Mekong Subregion scheme. The export quota system and joint venture investment instituted by the government, and the presence of cheap labor in Mae Sot, lured investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan via the Chinese business networks. In 2002 a cabinet resolution under the Thaksin administration declared Mae Sot a Special Border Economic Zone, encouraging investment, industry, and trade and calling for an expansion of infrastructure, tax and custom privileges, and relaxing of labor restrictions. Together with the border trade and the influx of cheap labor, further investment was lured to the area. However, the resolution did not involve structural change. Then, in 2005, a bill was passed in which Mae Sot was designed to be a combination of industrial estates and governmental agencies, where the private sector was the investor while the government supported the fundamental infrastructure. In 2011 the Thai cabinet approved a budget for hiring a team of expert planners to design the zone, and a government subcommittee focusing on legal preparations finalized a draft royal decree to create a special entity to run the zone. The zone would cover three districts along the border: Mae Sot, the main area for border trade, investment, industry, and tourism; and Phop Phra and Mae Ramat, with their focus on agriculture and agro-industry.

On the outskirts of Phop Phra and Mae Ramat Districts are plantations for export crops. Employers are mostly local, and here the pattern of seasonal plantation discourages the labor registration process. In the border area on the route from Mae Sot to Phop Phra, several migrant communities have been established, the majority being agricultural workers. In larger communities there is a temple with resident monks from Myanmar, a small health center, a small cinema or a common area to watch TV, and a grocery store that keeps regular hours. In Mae Sot, there are also different ethnic groups of workers from Myanmar spread out in communities in different subdistricts. The residential arrangement varies from huts built on rented land to rented rooms.

Samut Songkhram
Riverine cities such as Muang Mae Klong (Samut Songkhram) along the Chao Phraya have constituted important nodes since pre-Ayutthaya kingdoms. A large population, especially Mon, migrated to the area through the Three Pagodas Pass during the war between Ayutthaya and Burma, forming new communities along the river. In the lower Mae Klong, including Samut Songkhram, the communities experienced rapid growth from the reign of Rama I to Rama IV. Fruit orchards were planted, and the Mon population constructed temples as community centers. During the same time, the Chinese population started to converge around the Mae Klong River area. In Samut Songkhram canals were dug to create channels for improved movement of goods and trade, further drawing the Chinese population. In the late nineteenth century the Chinese population began to expand, leading to changes in the socioeconomic conditions of the lower Mae Klong and the development of the industrial and agricultural sectors in the area.

By far the largest population of Myanmar workers in Samut Songkhram is engaged in the fishing industry. In 1947 the Thai government stepped in to develop an operational structure for the fishing industry, introducing several programs to develop the infrastructure so that the industry, which began as family businesses, became more commercialized after the end of World War II and expanded rapidly between 1960 and 1972. Large investments began to pour in. Bigger ships with larger cold storage facilities were employed, enabling travel over longer distances. The industry expanded, and export to neighboring countries soon began. Fish was sold in various forms, which helped the industry grow until 1973, when it began experiencing limitations through trade negotiations with other countries.

In addition to growing adversity from the foreign market, the industry was also ­facing a labor crunch and therefore needed to introduce workers from the northeast of Thailand. This population soon took control of the profession. In the 1990s, however, Thai laborers from this area began to disappear. There were too many risks to contend with, such as being taken prisoner while fishing in international waters, or storms. This led to the hiring of foreign workers. Initially the fishing business in Samut Songkhram relied on the fish market in the neighboring province (Mahachai, Samut Sakhon), but when this market became overcrowded Samut Songkhram opened its own fish market in 1989. As the market expanded in Samut Songkhram, so did the demand for labor.

In the capital city center of Samut Songkhram, there is a large community of migrant workers behind the fish market. Other communities are spread out in the city and beyond. The workers live mostly in rented row houses, some of which have a common room for recreational activities where workers from the neighborhood can converge. There are shops among the rented rooms that carry products brought from Myanmar. There is a temple called “Wat Mon” by Thais, as well as other Thai temples where workers from Myanmar, especially Mon—who are numerous in the region—attend activities such as religious ceremonies, funerals, or Thai language study.

In both Mae Sot and Samut Songkhram, there is a sense of community for migrant workers that extends beyond the kinship network. These communities are a source of support in times of emergency, and a locus for cultural activities where the workers share their customs. There are usually unofficial community leaders who are recognized by the authorities and are trusted by the residents to protect the communities. These leaders also help organize cultural and recreational activities, which sometimes involve transborder cooperation. Occasionally workers seek help from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that pay regular visits to the community and provide various services, such as distributing medication and contraceptives, and disseminating information and knowledge about workers’ rights.

III Arrival in Thailand

Among the migrant workers interviewed in Mae Sot/Phop Phra (Tak), all but one person had come either accompanied by or seeking the assistance of friends and relatives who were already in Thailand. They had either “crossed the river by ferry and walked through the forests” or “crossed the bridge,” some fleeing from dire circumstances. Those who had walked through the forests arrived in rural villages and started agricultural daily wage labor. Migrants started as illegal immigrants and lived with the insecurity of being arrested by the police and being deported. As such, they were prepared to take any job available.

Migrants interviewed in this area were from families of wageworkers, petty traders, or peasant farmers. In two cases, the death of a husband had instigated the migration. In cases where a family moved, it was usually the husband or an older sibling who first entered and then later, once he had settled, called his wife or younger siblings to join him.13)

U (male, 43 years old) was the sixth of seven siblings, whose father died when he was three. Since his childhood he had peddled goods in Moulmein, as had his siblings. He married in Myanmar and had children. At 38, he decided to cross over to Thailand. He came by himself by boat and walked through the forest. Later his wife and children crossed over as well, and they met in the Forty-Second Kilometer Village. His friend lived there, and they decided to join him. However, after two months looking for work in vain, they decided to move to another village near Phop Phra. Now U works as an agricultural worker and lives with his wife and two children, as well as his younger brother and his child, who later followed him. (Case M-4)

E (female, 42), who is from Pa-an, first arrived in 1991. She entered by boat and walked through forests with friends, two men and three other women. In those days, border control was more lax than it is today. They lived in a village near Phop Phra and worked for daily wages in the fields. Her husband-to-be arrived later in Thailand. They had known each other in Myanmar and decided to marry in Thailand. They started a family and had three children in Thailand, but her husband died five years ago from a fever.14) (Case M-11)

By contrast, among the migrants in Samut Songkhram, at least 8 of the 17 interviewees explicitly mentioned that they had arrived with the help of an agent. In cases where the migrant moved directly from the border point to Samut Songkhram or to Bangkok, it was invariably through an agent. The agent’s fee ranged from 2,500 baht for earlier arrivals to 5,000 baht 10 years ago; it has since soared to as high as 15,000 baht. In most cases, including those who used agents, the new arrivals had siblings or close relatives already working in the area. Some had initially worked in other areas closer to the border, such as Kanchanaburi or Rajburi, but eventually found their way to their current location where wages were higher and there were more job opportunities, seeking assistance from a sibling or close friend. In addition, in comparison with the migrants in Mae Sot, most migrants in Samut Songkhram appeared to come from a more secure background as land-owning farmers.

M (female, 39) and her husband, K (40), were from farming households in Pa-an and married before they crossed the border. Using an agent, who charged 2,500 baht per person, they arrived in Bangkok in 1992. M began work as a housemaid, and K worked in construction. They had to live separately. In those days phones were not easily available, and they saw each other on weekends. After two years in Bangkok, M became pregnant. Together, the couple returned to Pa-an, because they were afraid to go to a hospital in Thailand as they did not have any permits. Back in Myanmar, they farmed K’s land. After two years they decided to relocate to Thailand again, leaving the child in M’s mother’s care. This time they entered Thailand through the Three Pagodas Pass to ­Kanchanaburi, and following the advice and introduction of friends, they arrived at Samut ­Songkhram. There they found work in marine processing factories. (Case S-7)

S (male, 39) and his wife, Y (34), are from Mudong, near Moulmein. They married in Myanmar and had one daughter there who was staying with Y’s mother, studying in high school. S came first, in 1998, through an agent with 20 others via Sangkhlaburi. In those days there were not many agents, but entering Thailand was easier. After one year, he called Y to join him. Now it is far more difficult to enter, and agents’ fees are expensive. (Case S-14)

There is thus a significant difference in the way that migrants arrive at these two locales. In Mae Sot, they arrive without the assistance of agents. Upon arrival, they have little choice but to seek employment in the border areas where they can get by using Burmese or Karen languages. In Samut Songkhram, migrants are ambitious enough to seek jobs with higher wages, and they have the means and financial resources to use agents. At the very start, therefore, a difference exists between those who have the means and channels to go to the interiors, such as Samut Songkhram, through an agent; and those who seek any improvement to their impoverished condition, arriving through their scant means at the border. In either case, however, they need to conceal themselves as illegal immigrants without work permits. Migrants walk through the forests at great risk with or without agents. Some catch malaria and die on the way, while others are caught and deported unless someone bails them out.

IV Working Conditions and Migrant Status

Wages and working conditions vary greatly between regions and tend to be higher in the interior especially around Bangkok (Table 2). However, even though some border locations, such as Ranong, have a higher wage structure than Samut Songkhram, the latter offers workers the opportunity to hold two or more jobs simultaneously, such as marine processing or market aid in the morning and construction work during the day, so the actual wages can be correspondingly much higher (Table 3). In Mae Sot, as explained above, wages paid to migrant workers are kept far beneath the provincial wage level. Among the 18 interviewees in Mae Sot/Phop Phra, 5 had jobs in factories and the others worked on farms or at irregular jobs. The wages started at 40 baht per day, an incredibly low figure.15) The number of workers with one-year work permits was less than half of the total number of interviewees, and even then, in many cases the permits were retained by their employers, adding to their sense of insecurity. This is corroborated by the Tak employment office figures showing that only 35 percent of migrant workers were registered (Fig. 2); in contrast, in Samut Songkhram 70 percent of migrant workers were registered. Interviewed workers in Mae Sot did not describe the relationship with their employers as one they could rely upon but said that, instead, they sought assistance mainly from NGOs operating in the area. As a rule, when they needed assistance they turned to the unofficial community leader, friends, acquaintances, or NGO staff who extended information on workers’ rights and helped them claim these rights from their employers.

Table 2 Minimum Daily Wages of Laborers in Thailand’s Provinces (in baht)


Table 3 Comparison of Daily Work Schedule of Samut Songkhram Fish Market Worker and Mae Sot Farm Worker



Fig. 2a Number of Registered Laborers in Five Border Districts (Mae Sot, Phop Phra, Mae Ramat, Tha Songyang, and Um Phang), Tak Province

Source: Office of Employment, Tak Province.


Fig. 2b Number of Registered Laborers in Samut Songkhram Province

Source: Office of Employment, Samut Songkhram Province.

M (female, 24) met her husband in a carpet factory in Mae Sot. She no longer works, since her son is only one year and two months old. She delivered her son in Mae Tao Clinic.16) Her husband is now the sole earner in their family, earning between 2,000 and 2,500 baht per month. Paying the rent and feeding the three of them leaves barely any money for savings. In the past, she and her husband worked in a garment factory in Bangkok for a year. They were arrested by the police, detained for 48 days in Bangkok, and then sent to Tha Sib (a border checkpoint that serves as a detention center for deported workers). They were forced to spend several days at Tha Sib, until finally they found a friend to bail them out. Then they had to save money to repay the friend. The incident shook them up enough to prevent them from ever venturing into another province again. (Case M-7)

In 2000 J (female, 30) accompanied her husband to Mae Sot, where their son was born. She works in a textile factory for 65 baht per day, but her employer has not paid her wages for the past two months. Wage payment is always delayed, so the family cannot meet their basic living needs. J had a permit in the past, but since her current employer has taken it she cannot get it extended. Her husband is in exactly the same situation. He moved from the sewing section of the factory to the factory canteen, so that he could alternate with her in caring for the baby. He earns 60 baht a day. J works from 8 in the morning to 10 in the evening, with two one-hour rests during which she takes over the care of her baby from her husband. Her older sister works in a textile factory in Bangkok, where wages and working conditions are better, but now that J and her husband have the baby they are afraid to move to Bangkok for fear of being detained by the police and deported to Myanmar. (Case M-6)

Migrant workers continue to be vulnerable, for the police have free reign to arrest any worker on the street, lock them up, and wait for the employer to bail them out. As such, it is incumbent on employers to maintain a good relationship with the police. In the border region, complicit agreements between the authorities and businesses keep wages at a low level (Arnold 2007). There is a tacit understanding between the nexus of the chamber of commerce, the labor office, and factory employers—and stories abound of employers who delay or refuse wage payment or take possession of workers’ permits. Under circumstances such as these, it is difficult for a worker to raise their voice against the establishment, as is obvious in the case of M below.

M (male, 35) and his wife came to Mae Sot in 1995. His wife applied for third-country relocation and moved on to Canada in 1999, leaving him alone. He worked in a textile factory from 8 in the morning to 10 in the evening with two one-hour rests, earning a daily wage of 50 to 60 baht. He had one-year work permits until 2004. After that he had problems with his employer, who would not give him a work permit. He could not seek any other work because his employer put his name on a blacklist of troublesome workers. Currently, he assists with work at the migrant workers’ association. When he acquired his work permit several years ago, 400 baht was deducted from his salary to pay for it. Now, ironically, he loses 200 baht per month to the police. During work hours, he says, when there is an official inspection in the factory, those without work permits are instructed to hide in the forest; they are recalled when the inspection is over. Even so, life in Thailand, he stresses, is easier than in Myanmar. Now, without his permit, he also takes on various odd jobs outside the factory. (Case M-5)

Even under such harsh conditions, many workers interviewed professed that life in Thailand was much better than in Myanmar. The reasons why they did not move on to areas such as Bangkok and farther south, where they knew that wages and conditions were much better, included the following: (1) some of them had no relatives or acquaintances and could not afford to hire agents; (2) they were afraid of being detained and sent back since they would have to bail themselves out, something many could not afford; and (3) their children could receive an education on the border (more on this below). With respect to the second reason, at least four of the interviewees in Mae Sot admitted that they had been detained and taken to Myawaddy and had to be bailed out (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3 Number of Foreign Laborers (Illegal Migrants Working without Permits) Arrested in Mae Sot District, Tak Province (a), and Muang District, Samut Songkhram Province (b)

Source: (a) Mae Sot District Council, Tak Province; (b) Muang District Council, Samut Songkhram Province.

The prevalent practice among those interviewed in Mae Sot was that the husband would work with a permit, while the wife would stay at home with young school-age children without obtaining a work permit. This was different from the Samut Songkhram cases, where husband and wife worked together, both obtaining permits, and where in many cases young children were sent back to Myanmar for the grandparents to look after. The motivation to earn and save is evident in the case of migrants in Samut Songkhram, whereas in the border a majority of migrants lead a hand-to-mouth existence yet choose to stay because even under such harsh conditions, they believe that life is better there than in Myanmar.

While working conditions in Samut Songkhram are far from easy, wages are comparable with the local standard, and all of the interviewed workers had work permits that they extended every year (Fig. 2). They tended to remain loyal to their jobs, although most workers who were employed in the market did multiple jobs each day. Many couples did a double routine of working in the fish market early in the morning (starting around 3 a.m. and continuing to 7 a.m.) and then doing other jobs (Table 3). Men did construction work, while women took buckets of squid home to process (Table 4). Each person earned around 170 baht per day, which added up to more than 300 baht for a couple. Room rent was between 1,200 and 1,800 baht per month.

Table 4 Business Owners Hiring Foreign Laborers from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia in Samut ­Songkhram and Tak in 2010


J (male, 28) arrived in Samut Songkhram in 2004 and works in the fish market. Initially he earned the average newcomer wage of 80 baht per day, but now he brings home more than 100 baht. After working in the fish market in the morning, he sells fish or does other work the rest of the day. He is learning Thai through an extracurricular course provided at a Thai school. Both husband and wife hold work permits with the assistance of their respective employers in the market. In the beginning, when he did not have a permit, J was caught by the police on numerous occasions because the police recognized newcomers. Each time, he had to pay his way out with 500 or 600 baht. His younger brother was once deported, and it cost 12,000 baht to bail him out. J is now arranging to obtain a passport, which will allow him to stay in Thailand longer and to move freely. His current work permit restricts him to the prefecture he works in, and every visit to Myanmar involves payment for permission to travel, despite which he may find himself in danger of being caught on either leg of the journey. A passport will afford him the liberty to travel home as often as he wishes. His parents have never met his wife, with whom he met and married in Thailand. The couple’s parents had a meeting in Myanmar, but he has not been able to return home so far. (Case S-9)

K (female, 32) met her husband (38) in Samut Songkhram. He has been in Thailand, working on fishing boats, for 10 years. He is the captain of a fishing boat, and he also works as its mechanic. K worked at peeling squid, but now that she has a three-year-old daughter her husband has asked her to stay home and look after the child. He returns home only once every three or four months, and rests for a week. He earns 20,000 baht per month. Both have work permits that they extend every year. Their monthly house rent is 1,400 baht plus gas (around 100 baht). Not only are they better off than most other migrant workers, but their family’s relationship with K’s husband’s employer is exceptionally good. Her husband’s employer drives K and her daughter to visit ports such as Prachuap or Chaam, where her husband’s ship occasionally docks. Her husband could not speak Thai in the beginning, but he now speaks it fluently, which adds to the measure of his employer’s trust. (Case S-5)

K’s husband’s case (S-5) is exceptional as he is the captain and mechanic of a fishing boat, which is considered skilled work. However, even in the case of unskilled workers, employer-employee relationships, as depicted by interviewees in Samut Songkhram, tend to be positive. Many interviewees refer to the assistance they receive from their employers in a variety of situations such as marriage, sending their children to school, recommending hospitals, helping pay hospital fees, and recommending medications. The employers also assist in extending their work permits and sometimes agree to pay the registration fees for them in advance. In some cases where workers get arrested by the police, their employers help in negotiating their release. NGO officers in Samut Songkhram disclosed that they advised migrants mainly on health and hygiene issues, rather than issues of workers’ rights or quarrels with employers.

Cases of deportation are heard of frequently among newcomers without work permits in Samut Songkhram, who are vulnerable to arrest and deportation. However, Samut Songkhram workers are better able to pay the cost of the bailout. For newcomers the first year, more than any other time, is the most difficult. They have no work permits, lack information, and must adjust to the cost of living, since there are many wage deductions by the employer in cases where employees take loans to pay an agent. Once the workers find jobs, however, they begin to learn, from both Thai and Burmese acquaintances, the minutiae of Thai regulations and their rights in Thailand, such as workers’ rights regarding wages and the changing policies regarding migrants.17)

As stated above, migrant workers can now apply for nationality verification toward obtaining temporary passports, which will grant them fully legal status. Workers in Samut Songkhram have started to apply for nationality verification and passports through this system. For workers, the most significant advantage of obtaining a passport is that it will allow them freedom of movement back and forth between Myanmar and Thailand, as well as within Thailand. Without a passport, the risk and expense for each trip is very high, forcing workers to limit visits home to once every few years at most. If they have to travel through another province in order to reach the border, the risk multiplies. Leaving the country is relatively easy, but reentering is very difficult. The border point is increasingly difficult to pass, requiring high sums to be paid to agents. Once workers prove their nationality and hold passports, they can travel freely. In addition, if workers have a passport and work permit, their family members or companions have the right to apply for a visiting visa.

In stark contrast, none of the workers interviewed on the border in Mae Sot/Phop Phra were undergoing the nationality verification process. Interviews in Mae Sot revealed that migrants were not well informed about it. Moreover, there was less need felt for it as those on the border did not need to travel through other provinces to reach their homes in Myanmar. According to information from the Employment Office in Samut Songkhram, as of August 2011 there were a total of 3,613 migrants (37 percent of all registered workers) whose nationality verification had already been processed. In Tak Province there were a total of 3,853 (16 percent of all registered workers: note that the rate of registered workers with permits was much lower in relation to the total number of workers), which reflects the general trend of drastically lower rates of registration.

It is apparent from the interviews that the difference in the condition of workers between the border areas and the inner regions is not only in wages but, more importantly, in migrant status, stability and relationship with employers, access to information, and motivation in the work situation. Working conditions and relationships with employers thus differ markedly between the two locations. In Mae Sot, the structure of relationships among the authorities, businesses, and workers is exploitative. The benefits of registration are low in such a setting.

V Social Networks and Family Matters

Choices regarding family formation, distribution, and mobility are affected by the conditions surrounding the workplace, as well as migrant status, and differ significantly between Mae Sot and the interior. Some of the migrants marry and start their families before migrating to Thailand, in which case the choice is whether and when to bring other family members. For those who marry in Thailand or migrate as couples, the choice is where to have children and where to bring them up. This affects their remittance patterns and their connection with their homeland.

Family Formation, Bringing up Children
Migrant workers began to flood into Samut Songkhram in the 1990s, mostly new arrivals who were young couples or unmarried youth who married and started families after their arrival. Of the 17 couples interviewed, 10 had met and married in Samut Songkhram, while 7 had been married before.18) This being the scenario, most of the couples began to have children after arriving in Samut Songkhram. In Mae Sot, on the other hand, 13 interviewees already had a family before coming to Thailand.

When a migrant is pregnant, especially in the case of young first-time mothers, she might choose to return home to seek the guidance and help of her mother and relatives. However, such a decision is fraught with uncertainty and fear regarding communication with Thai police and officials on the return journey. Some migrants give birth in Thailand. In the case of migrants without work permits in Mae Sot and Phop Phra, women give birth either at home with the help of a midwife from their community, or at the NGO-founded migrants’ clinic. In Samut Songkhram, where most women and men have work permits, the choice is always to give birth in the local public hospital, where a birth certificate can be obtained. This means that the child can later apply for Thai ­citizenship.19)

In Mae Sot and Phop Phra, even in cases where the young mother returns home to Myanmar to give birth, in most cases she returns with her children rather than leave them in Myanmar with their grandparents. In the 18 interviews at Mae Sot and Phop Phra, there were only three cases where children were left in Myanmar for their education. Migrants at the border, who lead a hand-to-mouth existence, cannot afford to send regular remittances to their parents to look after their children.

In four districts adjacent to the border in Tak, there are about 11,000 Burmese children annually enrolled in the 134 schools under the Thai educational system (from kindergarten to 12th grade). However, education for children of migrant illegal workers is available on the border in the form of “learning centers” (LCs). These are private schools for migrant children outside the Thai educational system. They provide education for migrants’ children close to their own community (Premjai 2011). Classes are taught in Burmese, Karen, or other ethnic languages. There are also Thai teachers who help students learn the Thai language. In 1999, 60 LCs formed an organization called the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee. These schools differ in size and in the age of students, but they all have 80 to 150 students, from kindergarten to fifth grade. Since these are unofficial teaching centers, they operate like NGOs and are funded and supported by international organizations. Tuition is free, and technical work support is also provided. Children who go to LCs rarely have the opportunity to go on to higher education, since LCs function outside the formal curriculum. A small number of higher education institutions, usually funded by NGOs, offer further education; all of them are in Mae Sot, including in the refugee camps.

M (female, 48) came to Mae Sot in 1999 with her husband and children. A year ago her husband passed away with to a fever. Her children go to an LC where teachers from Myanmar teach 50 migrant children. Her three older children were born in Myanmar before they moved to Mae Sot, and the youngest was born in Mae Sot. At the time of the youngest child’s delivery, M and her husband called a midwife to their home because they were afraid to go to the hospital. The eldest daughter (23) now works for a daily wage on a farm. Of the three sons, the eldest works in construction, has already married, and lives in Mae Sot. The two younger sons are still at school (LC), and M hopes that they will complete school even though they will not receive any diplomas. She sends remittances occasionally to her mother, who lives with her younger sister, her only sibling. The two older children contribute their wages to the household budget. M has no relatives in other provinces and has never thought of relocating. (Case M-10)

N (female, 39) had her first child after coming to Thailand. Her daughter has joined a school near the community. N says that she cannot afford to send her daughter to study in Myanmar. She can rarely send remittances to her mother back home as she has barely enough to make a living for herself. She visits home once a year with her daughter. She and her husband (42) have never been to another province; they confine themselves to their area and do not plan to look for work anywhere else because they have their daughter to look after. (Case M-8)

A marked contrast can be found in the manner in which migrants in Samut ­Songkhram educate their children. Most children are sent back to Myanmar, which is costly in terms of remittance. A few send them to the local Thai public school, seeking admission with the help of their employers.20) In 10 cases of those who gave birth to children in Samut Songkhram, the choice was to give birth in Thailand and then, when the child was around five years old, send the child back to Myanmar to study. In one case, the woman returned to Myanmar to have the baby, left the child in her mother’s care, and returned to work in Thailand. In cases where the child remains in Myanmar, it is usually the grandparents who look after the child with the help of other relatives nearby. Remittances are sent for the child’s school fees as well as living expenses. In one case, a child who had finished schooling in Myanmar joined her parents in Thailand. Her birth certificate from Thailand enabled her to obtain a Thai identification card.

T (male, 33) has two children (ages 9 and 5) who stay with his wife’s mother in Mudon (Myanmar). They were both born in Samut Songkhram and have birth certificates. When the older child was six, their mother took both of them home. The older child goes to school, and the younger is pre­paring for admission into school. The couple prefer to have their children educated in Myanmar, because this allows them to concentrate on their work in Thailand without the attendant distractions of child rearing. They talk to their children on the phone once or twice a month. (Case S-8)

V (male, 41) and his wife, M, have three daughters, aged 17, 15, and 8. All three were born in Thailand. The oldest was born at home when they worked in Tsai Yok (on the border), and the other two were born in the hospital. M returned to Myanmar after the birth of her first baby, for in the absence of telephones in those days it was hard for her to get advice on child rearing from her mother in Myanmar. When the child was 14 months old, mother and child returned to Thailand. The two older daughters attended school in Tsai Yok, the older one up to third grade, after which she was sent back to Myanmar. She was five years old when she began school and remained there until she was eight. The youngest child is currently attending school in Moulmein. She was sent to Myanmar when she turned five, with M’s sister who was visiting. V wanted to bring her back to Thailand, but M’s sister insisted on the child staying with her in Moulmein. V says he will bring her to Thailand once she is a little older. The family has since moved to Samut Songkhram, and the two older daughters work processing squid. (Case S-2)

M (female, 39) and K (male, 40) had their first baby in Pa-an after a stint in Bangkok (Case S-7, see arrival section), and they stayed on in Myanmar for two years working in the fields. They then decided to relocate to Thailand, so they left the baby with M’s mother and sister. They work in Samut Songkhram, and it was here that they had their second child. This time, since they had a work permit, they opted for delivery in Mae Klong Hospital. The child is now eight years old and goes to a local Thai public school. M wanted him to go to Myanmar to study, but the son did not want to go. K’s employer assisted them in placing him in the local public school. The school fees are approximately 100 baht per month, and textbooks cost several hundred baht per term. The couple hope that he will finish high school. Their daughter is now in seventh grade in Myanmar. She has never been to Thailand, and she currently lives with her aunt (M’s sister) and works in the fields. M and K send remittances regularly and call home every month. M hopes that their daughter will eventually join them and work in Thailand. M took her son to Myanmar for three months when he was nine months old, when her mother was seriously ill. The boy has not been to Myanmar since. (Case S-7)

Families make decisions as they gain knowledge and experience in ways of coping, and as their children grow up. Among the interviewees in Samut Songkhram, in only three cases had the children studied in a Thai public primary school. Gaining admission in Thai schools has thus far not been a common choice, for several reasons. First, it has not been easy for migrants to enter a Thai school. Strong support from an employer has made it possible for some. The documentation work has, however, become much easier, and more parents may make this choice in the future.21) Second, it is easier for parents to work from before dawn to late in the evening if they do not have young children living with them. Third, many parents confess that they prefer for their children to study in Burmese schools and receive an education in Myanmar. Once they finish school, in most cases children join their parents in Thailand.

Remittances and Ties across the Border
Due to the dire economic situation of most workers in Mae Sot and Phop Phra, sending remittances regularly to Myanmar is difficult or impossible. Of the 18 interviewees, 5 explicitly said that they had no money to send back (2 of them said they sent remittances until they had their own children). Only two replied that they sent remittances every year. In both cases, some of the children are grown and now working.

N (female, 39) came to Mae Sot in 1996 with her husband. They have a 10-year-old daughter who was born in Mae Sot and now goes to a nearby LC. Eight years ago, the textile factory in which K and her husband worked closed down. Since then, the husband has sought daily jobs. They have not considered moving elsewhere where the wages are better, because they want their daughter to receive an education in the current setting. K says that they do not have the money to send her to school in Myanmar. K sends remittances to her mother whenever she can, which is not often. She goes home to Myanmar once a year with her child. Crossing the bridge by car and traveling to Moulmein takes one day and costs 20,000 kyat. She has 10 older sisters and one older brother. One sister remains in Moulmein with her mother, working in the fields. Three are in Bangkok, and the rest are in Mae Sot. K lives with her husband and his mother, who helps to take care of the child. (Case M-8)

Remittances from Samut Songkhram are more regular and systematized, as workers in Samut Songkhram are financially better off. Samut Songkhram parents with children in Myanmar send remittances to cover the expenses of their upkeep. In 8 of the 17 families surveyed, the children stayed in Myanmar and remittances were sent mainly to cover their expenses. Remittances were sent for other purposes as well. In two cases, the couples were building their own house with their remittance. In four cases, the couples were young and without children, or they had children in Thailand but sent remittances to their parents.

N (female, 38) came to Thailand 20 years ago, and after a few years working elsewhere she came to Samut Songkhram, where she met her husband (40). They returned to Myanmar for their ­wedding. Their son attends a local Thai public school. When their parents are sick they go back to Myanmar, and when there are religious ceremonies and various other events they remit additional money besides their regular remittances twice a year. (Case S-10)

J (male, 28) and S (female, 23) are newly married. They both send remittances to their respective parents. They pay, on average, around 50 to 60 baht per 3,300 baht to remit money to Myanmar through an agent. (Case S-9)

S (male, 39) and his wife, Y (34), married in Myanmar and migrated to Thailand. Their daughter was born in Samut Songkhram and then sent back to Myanmar with Y’s mother, to whom the couple sends 3,300 baht per month out of their total average monthly salary of 10,000 baht. They want their daughter to visit Thailand from time to time, but primarily to study until university level in Myanmar. Their daughter is already in her second year of high school. S and Y came to Thailand initially by following the trail of S’s older brother. The brother has now returned to Myanmar and has built a house with his savings. S, too, is hoping to save enough to build a house and purchase some fields, and to live with his family back in Myanmar. He intends to stay in Thailand until he has saved enough to secure his future. His house is already under construction, and Y’s mother oversees it. (Case S-14)

The differences in remittance patterns between the border area and the interior are corroborated by Nwet Kay Khine, who compared the remittance practices and the support system between Bangkok fishery workers on the one hand and Mae Sot factory workers on the other (2007). Among Bangkok workers, the average wage was 191 to 195 baht per day, and they sent home monthly remittances ranging between 100,000 and 200,000 kyat. These were sent by way of what the author refers to as the “hundi” system. Remittances cover debts incurred back in Myanmar, or are sent to workers’ families who are in many cases taking care of their children. The remittance system, which has been in operation since the late 1990s, works in such a way that workers choose the agents with the best rates, and the agents rent their mobile phones to the workers so that they can inform the recipients in Myanmar that the money has been remitted.22)

It is more difficult for factory or farm workers in Mae Sot and Phop Phra to send remittances regularly; and when they do, it is through less systematized channels, such as asking a village acquaintance to carry the money home, or waiting for a family member to come and collect it. When a co-villager is requested to carry money home, a fee of 200 kyat per 10,000 kyat is paid. Others claim that they carry some money home every few years. In some cases, those in Mae Sot are at the receiving end of remittances sent from Bangkok. In one case, a couple in Mae Sot/Phop Phra received monthly remittances of around 1,200 to 3,000 baht from their daughters in Bangkok. They themselves sent remittances home to Myanmar irregularly.

Networks of Family Relations Extending on Both Sides of the Border
It has been demonstrated that from the outset, the choice between moving from their homeland in Myanmar to the Mae Sot/Phop Phra border region on the one hand, and moving directly to the interior on the other, involves a different set of preparations and mediations, and results in vastly disparate work conditions as well as choices for the family. The kind of adaptation required in each locale differs. However, the border can become a stepping stone in the march to the interior—if not taken by the original migrant, then by the next generation or other relatives.

Workers in Mae Sot/Phop Phra recognize that wages are higher in the interior. However, their physical mobility depends greatly on the condition of the family. Older parents may have children who work in the interior and may receive remittances, while they stay on the border, continuing daily wage labor, often without work permits. Their children become their new resource by moving to Bangkok. In two cases that we encountered, children sent remittances to parents on the border.

W (male, 44) got married in his early 20s when he returned from working in Lampang. He met his wife when he first came to Mae Sot. They have six children between the ages of 7 and 20; one died in childhood. All of his children were born in Thailand, delivered by a Karen midwife in their community. His son works in Mae Sot, and his daughters work in Bangkok as housemaids. They talk on the phone almost every day, and the daughters send remittances to their parents whenever possible. His two youngest children attend an LC. (Case M-13)

E (female, 42) came to the border area in 1991. She married in Thailand and has three children. Her husband passed away from a fever five years ago. The two older sons are working in Bangkok, receiving computer training as they work. She talks to them every Sunday on the phone. The youngest goes to an LC in Mae Sot. At the time of the birth of her first two sons, she returned to Pa-an in Myanmar so that her mother and siblings in Pa-an could help her cope with the birth and early childcare. One month after giving birth she returned to Thailand, leaving her older son in Pa-an until he came to Mae Sot at the age of eight. The second son studied up to second grade in Myanmar and then moved to a Thai temple for education. The youngest has never been to Myanmar and now studies in third grade at an LC. E also looks after her nephew (the son of her sister who works in Bangkok). E has seven siblings: three sisters are in Thailand, and the rest are in Pa-an tending to the fields. E sends annual remittances to her mother of around 50,000 to 60,000 kyat. She returns to visit her mother once every year or two, without passing the border checkpoint. (Case M-11)

We also encountered cases where migrants on the border looked after the children of siblings who worked farther in the interior, and who sent back remittances to the border for the upkeep of their children.

In Mae Sot, workers are not dependent on their parents or their family in Myanmar for raising their children, and they are not able to send remittances very often. Conversely, in Samut Songkhram, migrant workers draw upon the help of their relatives in Myanmar for support in bringing up their children. Remittances are sent regularly, and cultural and social ties are maintained. In a sense, for those in Samut Songkhram, ties with the homeland are based on mutual dependence of child care and remittance, whereas for migrants in Mae Sot they are based on sociocultural proximity and physical contiguity. In either case, networks of family relationships are formed on both sides of the border. For the former set of migrants, networks and ties of mutual dependence extend widely between various parts of Thailand and especially the homeland, and are actively maintained. For the latter on the border, mobile offspring or siblings may move to the interior and send remittances back to the border, while ties with the homeland tend to become secondary in spite of their physical proximity to it.

VI Cultural Practices and Future Plans

Even as workers maintain ties with their homeland and seek refuge in a community in which they can continue cultural and religious practices in their own style, it is crucial for them to acquire the ability to communicate and adapt to Thai culture and society to a certain extent in order to be able to negotiate with employers, police, or administrators and to improve their own conditions overall. Linguistic ability is one clear measure of the readiness to adapt, but not to assimilate, to the Thai context.

In Samut Songkhram, the workers interviewed were making the effort to learn Thai. First-generation migrants who have been in the country for more than five years, both male and female, are able to speak Thai to some degree. Here, life would be difficult without adapting to the Thai context, because the migrants are enveloped in a Thai world. Within their community they maintain their customs and language, but they adapt to the Thai setting outside the community, where they refrain from chewing betel or wearing their Burmese sarongs. There is also a school for children to learn Thai that is run by NGOs, as well as one for adults at the education center where lessons are given twice a week for 400 baht a month.

Workers in Samut Songkhram are eager to improve their skills at work, as well as their linguistic skills and relationship with their employers, because it means gaining their trust and obtaining better wages and improved work conditions. Employers and employees enjoy the benefits of mutually stable relationships. Yet, despite these relationships and efforts to adapt, 6 of the 17 respondents in Samut Songkhram clearly said that they wanted to return to Myanmar once they had saved enough money. The rest were ambiguous in this regard, especially those few who had children studying in Thai schools.

L (male, 39) makes approximately 5,000 baht a month working at a seafood factory. He also helps with the accounts and in dispatching products. He finished high school in Myanmar and initially worked in Mae Sot selling textiles in the market. He paid an agent and relocated to Samut ­Songkhram. His wife works in the same factory shucking oysters at 8 baht per kilo. Their rent is paid by their employer. L speaks Thai fluently, and he can also read and write. When he first came to Thailand he could not speak the language, but when he was caught by the police and detained for a few months, he studied it. He now has a work permit. His wife still does not have a permit, which means that she cannot move around Thailand freely—but if she gets in trouble, his employer will help. L is currently in the process of obtaining nationality verification. With this under his belt, he can travel freely to and from Myanmar, and he can bring his daughters back for holidays in Thailand. His daughters are currently staying with his parents and attending school in Moulmein. (Case S-11)

P (male, 40) and his wife have many siblings living together in the same row house. Their son and their nieces and nephews already have either Thai identification cards or birth certificates. Five of P’s siblings and three of his wife’s siblings are in the same province. Everyone speaks Thai. His son, however, speaks Thai better than any other language. They had a local Thai helper look after him when he was young, and this person persuaded the parents to send him to a local Thai school. (Case S-10)

In Samut Songkhram, the outlook toward the future is split, and the decision seems to depend mostly on the choice of the children. In the case of S-10 above, for example, the family will stay on with the children’s generation who are fully adapted to Thailand, whereas in other cases (such as S-14) remittances to Myanmar are made to ensure a better future back home, and the children are educated in Myanmar for their future in the homeland.

In Mae Sot, the number of Thai speakers among migrant workers is low, especially among women. In 12 of the 18 cases, the respondent said that she/he could not speak Thai. The need to speak the language and to better adapt to the social and cultural context of Thailand seems to be much weaker on the border, which is characterized by a multiethnic and multilingual population. Where the context itself is one of a multicultural frontier, it is easy to get by with Burmese or Karen anywhere in the town, and many of the workers live in communities of migrants.

Curiously, however, physical proximity to the homeland does not seem to be a measure of the strength of migrants’ ties to it. It may seem rather contradictory that many of those on the border who are uninterested in learning Thai also state that they will never go back to their homeland again. Fifteen of the 18 respondents said that they would probably never go back to live in Myanmar. The nuance, in most cases, is less a matter of hope and choice than destiny—they have no place to go back to. One respond­ent explicitly declared that she would not go back to Myanmar because all of their children had now come to Thailand, even though their status was illegal, and there were no close family members left in their home country. This may be due to the refuge situation as well as sociocultural constitution of the border region itself. It is indeed a frontier for those coming from Myanmar, many under dire circumstances. There is less a sense of crossing the border for better wages and a better future, and more a sense of coming to the frontier in a continuous sociocultural space, where life is far more tolerable than the social, economic, and political conditions at home.

VII Conclusion

Migrant workers from Myanmar to Thailand come from varied socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds. The migration is instigated by hopes for refuge from the dire conditions of living in their home country, and/or by an aspiration for better earnings and a better life.23) Because of this, they endure the hardships of migrant status, even if it means taking up demanding jobs and not being selective about their working and living conditions. Migrants in most cases are supported by networks of family and kin in Thailand and across the border. One person’s move brings opportunity for others who follow, expanding networks, decreasing risk, and providing support and opportunity. This fosters the development of a spatial network that expands both across the border and between different localities, constantly redefining their space. The two locations studied here differ markedly in working and living conditions, cultural adaptation, and modes of connecting with the homeland. The major points of comparison are indicated in Table 5 (see also Fig. 4).

Table 5 Comparison of the Two Locations



Fig. 4 Conceptualizing the Migrant Flow

The larger structure of exploitation by “border partial citizenship” and the overall condition of migrants being marginalized workers is the same in both locales, despite local differences in the structure of exploitation. This is the invisible border (Pitch 2007) that they must live with, whether close to or distant from the physical border. However, we have found that the actual implementation of state regulations and the experience and modes of adaptation by migrants differ markedly in the two locales. From the migrants’ point of view, Thailand is not a uniform space. The ways in which migrants form networks and define their respective spaces differ, and across these varied spaces further networks are formed, thus constituting multilayered spaces.

In Mae Sot, on the border, migrant space is defined, on the one hand, by the nexus between state and local agents/authorities as well as business owners/employers, which maintain the exploitative structure; and, on the other, by migrants who construct their space in response, based on pre-border as well as newly formed post-border networks and institutions such as the organization of learning centers, local migrant communities with their leaders, migrant workers’ organizations (Zaw Aung 2010), and religious networks. Many migrants in Mae Sot migrated due to dire conditions on the other side, but make use of the cultural continuity across the physical border, expanding their frontiers by use of the “border social system” in that locale.

Migrants to interior provinces seek better-paying jobs and arrive with the costly help of agents. In Samut Songkhram, where migrants arrive with the expectation of wage labor opportunities, the border is physically distant and the sociocultural continuity is felt less. Migrants cross the border to reach the interior, where they must to some extent adapt to the Thai context but can expect better rewards by doing so. They can gradually achieve a more comfortable space for themselves, while continuing their own cultural practices in the local community and devising ways to maintain ties with their homeland across the distant border.24)

We have found that the decision to migrate at the outset is spatially two-tiered: mobility to the border or to the interior. Furthermore, migrants in the first category or their family members may later seek jobs for better wages in the interior and thereby expand their networks. As a result, we find multilayered spaces that connect locales in Myanmar, the border, and the Thai interior (Fig. 4).

Of course, one must not easily label Mae Sot as a border community and Samut Songkhram as interior. Each location has its historical, cultural, economic, and industrial constitution that articulates with the migrant processes to form its own distinctive space. The exploitative structure and the constant influx of migrants that mark Mae Sot as a border is not representative of, nor applicable to, other border locations, as Pitch demonstrates in his comparison between Mae Sot and Mae Sai (2007).

We have demonstrated how migrant networks extend within and across the border and how relationships in the networks vary, for example, in the nature of interdependence. This has led to clarifying the manner in which migrants create layers of space by weaving relationships across given political-economic and social contexts. By forming networks in and across these locales, migrant workers better adapt and make use of the migrant labor opportunities despite severe difficulties. Foregrounding the network has allowed us to highlight sociocultural relations in and across the border region as well as the different spaces found in locales within the same state territory, thereby de-­privileging state-defined borders and spaces as the sole definitive factor.

This paper has employed the integrative approaches of the meso, micro and macro, ultimately focusing on the networks. This in itself is not new in migration studies (Faist 2000; Brettell 2003). Here, however, we reconsider this in the context of mainland Southeast Asia, where transnational migration takes place in contiguous spaces, crossing physical borders. This has allowed us to see that even space within a nationally defined border is not uniform in the perspective of migrants, who formulate multilayered networks and spaces, thereby forming their space at the border as well as within and across the border. Such an alternative space does not replace the state-defined space; however, it demonstrates that migrant spaces are formed and expanded in the process of their dealing with that monolithic state-defined space, which ultimately dynamically articulates with policies and regulations by the state and locale. By illuminating the spaces formed by networks of migrants from Myanmar to Thailand, this paper has demonstrated that the dynamics of meso-level networks cannot be separated from the functioning and institutionalization of the macro-level on the one hand, and the micro-level decisions by migrants on the other, and that the networks in effect articulate with the geopolitical and socioeconomic setting to form multiple spaces for migrants in and across specific locales.

Accepted: August 22, 2012


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List of legal acts referred to:

Phraratchabanyat kaan thamngaan khong khon tangdao phoso 2551 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชบัญญัติการทำงานของคนต่างด้าว พ.ศ. 2551 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Alien Occupation Act 2008 in Government Gazette]. Vol. 125, No. 37, p. 24. May 22, 2008.

Phraratchabanyat khon khao mueang Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชบัญญัติคนเข้าเมือง ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Immigration Act in Government Gazette]. Vol. 116, No. 108, p. 1. November 5, 1999. Vol. 96, No. 28, Special Issue, p. 45. March 1, 1979. Vol. 67, No. 71, p. 1208. December 26, 1950.

Phraratchabanyat pongkan lae prappraam kaankhaa manut phoso 2551 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชบัญญัติป้องกันและปราบปรามการค้ามนุษย์ พ.ศ. 2551 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Human Trafficking Suppression and Prevention Act B.E. 2551 in Government Gazette]. Vol. 125, No. 29, p. 28. February 6, 2010.

Phraratchabanyat sanchat chabap thii 4 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชบัญญัติสัญชาติ ฉบับที่ 4 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Nationality Act in Government Gazette]. Vol. 125, No. 39, p. 24. February 27, 2008.

Phraratchabanyat sanchat chabap thii 3 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชบัญญัติสัญชาติ ฉบับที่ 3ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Nationality Act in Government Gazette]. Vol. 109, No. 42, p. 94. April 8, 1992.

Phraratchabanyat sanchat chabap thii 2 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชบัญญัติสัญชาติ ฉบับที่ 2 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Nationality Act in Government Gazette]. Vol. 109, No. 13, p. 3. February 25, 1992.

Phraratchakritsadika kamnot ngaan nai achiip lae wichaachiip thii haam khon tangdao tham chabap thii 4 phoso 2548 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชกฤษฎีกากำหนดงานในอาชีพและวิชาชีพที่ห้ามคนต่างด้าวทำ (ฉบับที่ 4) พ.ศ. 2548 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Royal decree on the types of work to be prohibited for aliens in Government Gazette]. Vol. 122, No. 38, Special Issue, p. 4. May 10, 2005.

Phraratchakritsadika kamnot ngaan nai achiip lae wichaachiip thii haam khon tangdao tham chabap thii 2 phoso 2536 Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชกฤษฎีกากำหนดงานในอาชีพและวิชาชีพที่ห้ามคนต่างด้าวทำ (ฉบับที่ 2) พ.ศ. 2536 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Royal decree on the types of work to be prohibited for aliens in Government Gazette]. Vol. 110, No. 189, Special Issue, p. 24. November 17, 1993.

Phraratchakritsadika kamnot ngaan nai achiip lae wichaachiip thii haam khon tangdao tham phoso 2522 lae banchii Thai phraratchakritsadika Ratchakitchanubeksa พระราชกฤษฎีกากำหนดงานในอาชีพและวิชาชีพที่ห้ามคนต่างด้าวทำ พ.ศ. 2522 และบัญชีท้ายพระราชกฤษฎีกา ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Royal decree on the types of work to be prohibited for aliens in Government Gazette]. Vol. 96, No. 80, Special Issue, p. 35. May 14, 1979.

Prakaat krasuang mahaatthai rueang kaan anuyaat hai khon tangdao baang champhuak khao maa yuu nai ratcha-anachak pen koranii phiset kho 4, 6 aasai amnaat taam nueakhwaam nai maatraa 17 nai ­phraratchabanyat khon khao mueang phoso 2522 Ratchakitchanubeksa ประกาศกระทรวงมหาดไทย เรื่อง การอนุญาตให้คนต่างด้าวบางจำพวกเข้ามาอยู่ในราชอาณาจักรเป็นกรณีพิเศษ ข้อ 4, 6 อาศัยอำนาจตามเนื้อความในมาตรา 17 ในพระราชบัญญัติคนเข้าเมือง พ.ศ. 2522 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Announcement of the Ministry of Interior regarding special cases for admitting some aliens to enter and live in Thai territory, items 4 and 6. According to section 17, Immigration Act 1979 in Government Gazette]. Vol. 125, No. 55, Special Issue, p. 11. March 17, 2008. Vol. 127, No. 69, Special Issue, p. 31. June 17, 2010.

Prakat khong khana patiwat chabap thii 322 Ratchakitchanubeksa ประกาศของคณะปฏิวัติ ฉบับที่ 322 ราชกิจจานุเบกษา [Announcement of revolutionary council 322 Royal Thai Government Gazette]. Vol. 89, No. 190, Special Issue, p. 94. December 13, 1972.

1) Many people have fled Myanmar due to violence in their homeland, and it is thus difficult to distinguish clearly between migrant workers and refugees (Faist 2000, 138). The total number of registered migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar in Thailand in 2009 was 1.3 million, of whom 1.08 million were from Myanmar. The number of unregistered workers is estimated to far exceed this number.

2) A recent exception is the work of Maniemai Thongyou on Laotian migrant workers’ cross-border networks in Thailand (2012).

3) Fieldwork was conducted during the following periods: December 2006; August–September 2008; February–March, August–September, and November 2009; and February–March and August–­September 2010. The research was made possible by the G-COE Program of Kyoto University, In Search of Sustainable Humanosphere in Asia and Africa, Field Research Program for Graduate Students 2010, and the Scientific Research Fund (C) of MEXT (FY2009–11).

4) See Immigration Act 1950 (2493), 1979 (2522), and 1999 (2542).

5) The reason for this was the prevailing general sentiment that the large and increasing number of foreign workers diminished the size of the internal labor market, thus affecting the sustainability of the lifestyle of Thai people.

6) Nationality Act 1992 (2535) and 2008 (2551).

7) See more in the royal decree on the types of work to be prohibited for aliens in 1979 and in Government Gazette 2(4) (1993; 2005).

8) Migrant laborers also began to receive protection through the Thai government’s Protection and Control against Human Trafficking Act (2008) and Human Trafficking Suppression and Prevention Act 2551, which prohibited human trafficking of all kinds (Act of Protection and Control against Human Trafficking 2008 [2551]).

9) The same agreement had been made with Cambodia and Laos in 2006. The Myanmar agreement took much longer. The Myanmar regime instituted three border posts where the verification could be carried out, and the actual process began only in July 2009.

10) In January 2013, this was further extended to April 2013. In February 2013, there were 733,413 Myanmar migrants who had received the verification.

11) Half of the 16 ferry piers at Myawaddy in 2003 came under the control of this faction.

12) Section 13 of Immigration Act 1979.

13) One of the interviewees mentioned the armed conflict in Myanmar as a reason for migration, and another mentioned that his house in Myanmar had been torn down. Many of the migrants came from areas affected by the armed conflict.

14) On the border, there were cases of divorcees as well as people who had lost a spouse. In 3 of the 18 cases, the husbands had died in Mae Sot from a high fever as they were unable to go to the hospital because they lacked permits. The bereft spouses did not return to Myanmar.

15) In the farming communities, the cost of accommodation was 100 baht per head for wood and bamboo huts that the workers built themselves. In town, it ranged from 200 baht for housing, plus 100 baht for gas, up to 500 baht. Accommodation was once free in these communities, but with the ever-increasing number of people the cost of living is rising.

16) A private clinic founded in 1989 by Dr. Cynthia Maung for migrants and refugees.

17) See more in the announcement of the Ministry of Interior regarding special cases for allowing some aliens to enter and live in Thai territory: items 4 and 6, section 17, Immigration Act 1979.

18) Even though they met and married in Thailand, notably, four are from the same general area (Moulmein, for example) and four others are from the eastern part of Myanmar (Karen State, Mon State, or Tannintayi).

19) With this certificate, the children of migrant workers born in Thailand can submit an application for citizenship when they are of legal age, even if the parents were not legally married. This does not mean the automatic conferral of citizenship, as that depends on the state’s deliberation of such factors as the parents’ personal history of cohabitation and past records. With a work permit a worker is able to apply for the 30 baht health card, so a mother with a work permit pays only 30 baht for delivery, while a baby’s health expense is around 900 baht.

20) In 2005 the Thai Ministry of Education laid out a regulation according to which migrant children had the right to receive an education regardless of their parents’ legal status, and public schools would receive a budget from the government to accept such children. However, the actual management of the regulation has been left to local administrations, which has hindered its implementation. In Samut Songkhram, migrant children enrolled in public schools are a very small minority (123 in 2009). Learning centers are limited to those run by NGOs to prepare younger children to enter Thai schools. In neighboring Samut Sakhon Province, which also has a large number of migrant laborers, greater public school enrollment has been observed, due to support by NGOs; yet it has been reported that migrant parents of Mon derivation prefer to send their children to learning centers run by Mon NGOs (Notsu 2010).

21) In Samut Songkhram municipality, there has been a small but definite increase in the number of non-Thai students from the year 2006 onward, most of who are children of Burmese migrant workers. The number of students increases each year. In four schools in the municipality, the number rose from 7 in 2006 to 66 in 2010.

22) There is a “primary collector,” a small-scale trader who may have been a migrant him/herself. He makes money from the exchange rate and the phone call fees. He sends the money he collects to the bank account of a “secondary collector.” The secondary collector is a businessman who has a passport and bank account in Thailand and who travels back and forth across the border often. The secondary collector contacts the distributing agent on the Myanmar side. The distributor receives the notice and contacts the recipient to come and collect the money at a certain time, and to let them know when to wait for a phone call since the recipients in Myanmar usually do not have their own phones. The cost of sending 100,000 kyat home is 50 to 70 baht (in 2009, 100,000 kyat was equivalent to 2,650–2,670 baht). The recipient pays 500 kyat as courier fee to receive 100,000 kyat (Nwet Kay Khine 2007).

23) The fine line that separates the choice to live in or outside the refugee camps needs to be the topic of another investigation.

24) While the newly instituted nationality verification process may enhance this tendency, the future for migrant labor from Myanmar is impossible to foresee. The regime has opened up to both, forces of democratization within the country as well as to foreign involvement, so that labor demand may rise within Myanmar itself.


Vol. 2, No. 2, Chris BAKER, PASUK Phongpaichit

Contents>> Vol. 2, No. 2

Protection and Power in Siam: From Khun Chang Khun Phaen to the Buddha Amulet

Chris Baker* and Pasuk Phongpaichit**

*Independent Researcher, Thailand

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

**ผาสุก พงษ์ไพจิตร, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, 254 Phayathai Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand

The main purpose of this article is to argue for the importance of protection as a concept for understanding religion, power, and social structuring in Thai tradition. Protection is a prominent motif in the Thai folk epic, The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, and the work describes a range of practices and devices sought to provide protection against various sources of danger. The article traces the origins of this “knowledge” and its modern adaptation into the Buddha amulet.

Keywords: Siam, Thailand, protection, power, amulet, supernaturalism

Today in Thailand the wearing of an amulet (พระเครื่อง phra khrueang), a small image of the Buddha or of a famous monk usually enclosed in some form of casing and attached to a cord or chain worn around the neck, is among the most widespread of religious practices.1) The principal benefit of such amulets is protection from dangers of various kinds, verging into a more positive desire for good fortune. In Khun Chang Khun Phaen (KCKP), a massive folk epic dating back to the late Ayutthaya era, the demand for protection against dangers is a dominant theme, and many devices are used for this purpose.

In the study of religion, power, and social ordering in Thai society, the key concepts have been merit and power, prowess, patron-client ties, kingship, and so on.2) All these concepts betray a top-down view, a focus on explaining why certain people are powerful. The concept of protection comes into play when the angle of vision switches to bottom-up and concentrates on what people seek from religion, power, and social institutions. In historical study, the nature of the few sources available (chronicles, laws) has favored the top-down view. However, literary sources that emerged from a popular tradition offer the possibility of moving outside this straitjacket. Similarly, in contemporary study, the concept of protection or security has emerged with increasing attention to the analysis of popular religious practice. In his recent pathbreaking work, Justin McDaniel argues that besides the well-known Buddhist qualities of non-attachment, compassion, and enlightenment, everyday practice points to “the importance of security and protection (khwam plotphai, kan pongkan), abundance . . . , graciousness . . . , and heritage” (McDaniel 2011, 219).

In this article, we trace the concept of protection from the late Ayutthaya era to the present. The early sections analyze the meaning and prominence of protection in KCKP, and the range of devices and practices deployed in its pursuit. The later sections trace the emergence of the modern amulet and the changing role of the Buddha in the business of protection.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen as a Source

KCKP is a long folk epic that developed in an oral tradition of storytelling for local audiences. The plot, set in the provincial urban society of central Siam, is a love triangle ending in tragedy. Khun Phaen is handsome and dashing but his family was ruined after his father was executed by the king for an error on royal service. Khun Chang is the richest man in the local town but fat, ugly, and crass. The two compete for the lovely Wanthong. Khun Phaen woos and weds her, but Khun Chang then uses his wealth and court connections to take her away. The rivalry continues through two pitched battles, two court cases, trial by ordeal, jail, treachery, abduction, and other mayhem. Tiring of this disorder, the king summons the three and commands that Wanthong be executed for failing to choose between the two men.

Probably the tale originated around 1600 and developed in an oral tradition of story­telling for local audiences, becoming hugely popular by the eighteenth century, and very long (21,000 lines excluding late sequels). It was then adopted by the court, converted to written form, extended with new episodes and sequels, and embellished with fancier poetry. The first printed edition appeared in 1872, but the work is known today through an edition published in 1916–17 by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, half-brother of King Chulalongkorn.3)

Works like KCKP that develop through repeated interaction between performers and audiences over a long period, as did many of the classics of world literature, come to reflect the tastes and values of their society. While the court revisions greatly changed the surface of KCKP, the plot, tone, structure, and rhythm of the work retained much of their original character. The epic is a rare document that reflects the society and mindset of premodern Siam.

Protection in Khun Chang Khun Phaen

Throughout the tale, characters seek protection (คุ้มครอง khum-khrong, ป้องกัน pong-kan) against risks, dangers, and threats (เสี่ยง siang, ภัย phai, อันตราย antarai, คุกคาม khuk-kham) in order to ward off sorrowful hardship (ทูกข์ thuk) and achieve peaceful contentment (สุข suk). They look for someone whom they can depend on (พึ่ง phueng), and who will feed or support them (เลี้ยง liang). When the father of a main character dies, his servants lament “We have lost our protector,” and fear harassment by local officials (p. 47).4) When news arrives that the hero, Khun Phaen, has died on a military campaign, his mother-in-law’s first thought is “Who’ll protect us?” (p. 228). When a father announces he will give his daughter to Khun Phaen, she protests, “My lord and master, do you no longer protect your child?” (p. 207). To gain admittance to a bandit gang, a man begs the chief, “I want to live in your lair and shelter under your protection from now on” (p. 1178). On the eve of a marriage, a father orders, “Protect and enjoy her, my son” (p. 1247). When Khun Phaen comes under attack by his rival, Khun Chang, he asks himself, “How can I protect myself?” (p. 316) and goes off to acquire the tools to extract his revenge—a powerful sword, horse, and personal spirit.

The three main sources of danger are defined in the second chapter recounting the deaths of the three main characters’ fathers. The first source is nature, especially the wild forest; the father of the heroine, Wanthong, dies from a forest fever contracted on a trading expedition. The second is human wickedness; Khun Chang’s father is killed by a professional bandit gang. The third is authority; Khun Phaen’s father is executed by the king.

Finding protection from the third source of danger, authority, is the key organizing principle of the social structure known as sakdina, at least when seen from below, the angle of vision of the key characters in KCKP. Men donate some or all of their labor to a patron in return for protection from various forms of authority. In the classic form of sakdina, men become dependents (ไพร่ phrai, ทาส that) in the service of a khun nang noble. Khun Phaen’s father is an effective patron in the provincial town of Suphanburi because he has an official post as a soldier and recognition from the king. As a result, local officials “shook their heads [and] knew never to cross him” (p. 8). After the father is killed, his servants lament that, “nobody dared bully us, because everyone feared Khun Krai. But now they’ll all come and push us around” (p. 35). But this classic form of patronage is not the only one. The same principles apply in many other circumstances. After being branded as an outlaw, Khun Phaen places himself under the patronage of a provincial governor who plans to employ him as a guard. The chief of a bandit lair gives shelter to fugitives who in turn must work as robbers. An abbot urges Khun Phaen to stay in the monkhood because the robe is protection against the dangers of conscription.

The model for the role of protector is a parent’s custodianship of children, and especially the male in the combined role of father, husband, and householder. Good parents protect their children from all dangers, even the menace of sun, wind, and insects. Husbands shelter their wives like the spreading branches of a bo tree (“Oh, little bo tree shelter of your darling wife . . . , ” p. 748). Women cannot usually take the role of protector as wives (and children) are legally the property of the husband. Marriage is a transfer of the daughter from the protection of the father to that of the husband. The usual word for marriage seen from the male side is คู่ครอง khu-khrong, “partner-rule-protect.”5)

The paternal role is a metaphor for other relations of protection. In KCKP, the word for father, pho, is used as a pronoun between ward and protector. Wives address their husbands as pho. Khun Phaen addresses his official patrons, Phramuen Si and Phra Phichit, as pho, and they reciprocate by addressing him as a child. After Khun Phaen secures the release of 35 convicts from jail to serve as soldiers, they address Khun Phaen as pho.

The ability to serve as a protector depends on personal qualities, wealth, and political connections. Wanthong’s mother prefers Khun Chang over Khun Phaen as a suitor-protector because Khun Chang has wealth and connections in the Ayutthaya court while Khun Phaen is poor and fatherless. Later, after Khun Phaen has won a military victory, a village headman in the north presents Khun Phaen with his daughter in anticipation that Khun Phaen will win royal favor and social advancement.

The king is at the apex of this official pyramid of protection. Two of the main items of royal regalia, the sword and multi-tiered umbrellas, are symbols of protection. In the invocations that preface the king’s appearances in KCKP, he “protects the mass of the populace and soldiery so they are joyful” (p. 506) and “offers protection to the great and small throughout the world” (p. 402) so well that other territories eagerly seek the same shelter. In court formalities the king is addressed as “lord protector,” “divine protector,” or “paramount protector.” The young Khun Chang is taken to be presented as a royal page so that he will enjoy royal protection.

But political power is double-edged. It contains the ability to protect, but also the potential to threaten. This is true at all levels of the social structure, but as the summit of the political order, the king is both the most effective protector and the most terrible threat. Khun Phaen’s father has status in his home town because he is a soldier in royal service, but when he commits an error, the king orders his execution and the seizure of his property and family. All the major character in the tale, and many of the minor ones, lose life, liberty, property, rank, spouse, or kin at the hands of the king. Although the monarch is also a giver of rank and property, particularly to those who bring him victory in war, this aspect receives much less emphasis in KCKP than his capacity to deprive.6)


Patronage is only one way to seek protection and is not wholly effective. To combat all three sources of danger (nature, human wickedness, and authority), skills and devices also come into play. Before undertaking any risky exploit (a journey, marriage, war), characters in KCKP seek protection for themselves in various ways. They use methods of divination in order to locate dangers in time and space so they may be avoided. They adorn themselves with protective devices and recite formulas that have supernatural power to avert various forms of threat including weapons, fierce animals, and the malicious intentions of enemies.

Around the age of 14, Phlai Kaeo (the future Khun Phaen) enters the wat as a ­novice to gain education in these skills and devices. He is intent upon following in his late father’s footsteps as a soldier. The skills and devices are primarily for use in war, but also have application in everyday life.

His primary training is at Wat Som Yai in Kanburi:7)

 The novice studied to read and write. With diligence, he soon mastered Khmer, Thai, arithmetic, the main scriptures, calculating the sun and moon, and translation of texts. (p. 58)

Even this basic course of reading, writing, arithmetic, and languages includes some astrology. When the abbot discovers that he has a bright pupil, he adds some fundamentals of supernaturalism:

 The abbot had nothing left to tell him. He patted Kaeo on the back and the head and said, “That’s the end of my gut, my dear Novice Kaeo.
 There’s only the big treatise with the heart formulas8) and mantras. I’ve been collecting them since I was a youth. Until now in my old age, I haven’t shared them with anyone.
 This is the extent of my knowledge. Because I’m fond of you, Kaeo, I’ll pass it on to you. There’s everything—invulnerability, robbery, raising spirits—something for every occasion.” (pp. 58–59)

Phlai Kaeo absorbs the abbot’s treatise but knows there is more to learn. After all, Kanburi is a border outpost, and the abbot had collected his knowledge on his own. Phlai Kaeo moves to Suphanburi, his old family home, which is a long-established religious center. There he studies with two renowned abbots who had earlier taught his own father. In this secondary stage, he first attends Wat Palelai, where the emphasis is on scriptures and pedagogy.

 Novice Kaeo had an agile mind beyond compare, and was diligent without being told. After three months of practice, he had sermons down by heart.
 Whether it was the Mahachat, sermons on the teachings, or anything else, he spoke beautifully with a peerless choice of words, and a voice as charming as a cicada. Wherever he gave sermons, people loved to come and listen. (p. 61)

As a talented student, he also takes evening classes in intermediate supernaturalism.

 In the evenings he went to the main kuti to pay his respects, attend to the abbot, and take instruction: how to make a sword for war; how to transform a thorny branch into a buffalo charm;
 how to enchant dummy soldiers; how to charm a woman so that once their eyes had met, her heart would be captivated and she would never forget.
 His master laughed. “Young Kaeo, I know you’re interested in the stuff about being a lover. Don’t do damage to people’s wives but old maids and widows, take them!
 I’ll teach you everything about sacred mantras and formulas. You’ll be a real gem.” He spat out the betel he was chewing and passed it to Novice Kaeo to eat the remains. Then the master hit him with a pestle, almost chipping his skull. “There! It didn’t crack or bruise. Like hitting a stone.” The master rolled about with laughter. (p. 61)

Shortly after, Phlai Kaeo moves to Wat Khae where Abbot Khong takes his studies to the tertiary stage.

 The abbot promptly began to instruct him on everything:
 putting an army to sleep and capturing its men; summoning spirits; making dummies with power to fight courageously; writing pathamang;9) concealment; invulnerability; undoing locks and chains;
 all the arts of victorious warfare; all knowledge for overcoming enemies with no hope of resis­tance; calculating auspicious times for any action; enchanting tamarind leaves to become wasps;
 expertise in all covert war tactics; commanding troops in hundreds of thousands; defeating whole territories; the Great Beguiler mantra to induce strong love;
 stunning people; invisibility; gaining the strength of a lion; withdrawing athan10) protective powers and preventing their replacement; and keeping spirits to act as spies.
 He studied all branches of knowledge, reciting both old and new repeatedly to commit to memory. (pp. 124–125)

In the course of this education, Phlai Kaeo has learned the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and languages, then more advanced courses on divining and manipulating the supernatural forces which operate in this world. He makes only limited use of these skills in his early career: he summons up a spirit when he needs a quick ride through the air; he uses love mantras to seduce women; in his first military campaign, he is aided by his body’s ability to resist weapons. Supernaturalism plays a very minor role in this stage of the story, but that changes dramatically when his rival, Khun Chang, gains advantage by using the power of his money and his political connections at court. Khun Phaen then turns to supernaturalism to protect himself against these powerful forces.

The skills that Khun Phaen learns and deploys can be roughly divided into two types: divination of supernatural forces, and manipulation of these forces.


The main technique for divination depends on astrology, signs read from the position of celestial bodies. In Siam, the royal court imported the Indian system of astrology known as Jyotisha, meaning “light, heavenly body,” probably via Sri Lanka (see Fig. 1).11) It also imported Brahmans to use the technique, and rewarded them with high posts in the nobility. The Jyotisha system plots the path of nine heavenly bodies (sun, moon, five planets, and two imaginary planets) against a map of the sky divided into 12 houses named after constellations. Each house represents a certain mental aspect (stability, tolerance, love, judgment, etc.), and each heavenly body represents a certain aspect of life (ego, wealth, mind, etc.). A reading taken at birth determines which of the heavenly bodies will influence which aspects of that life. Reading of the position of these influential bodies at a future time can then be used to divine events.


Fig. 1 Jyotisha Diagram

This technique can be applied to individuals, cities, kingdoms, anything for which a “birth” time can be identified. But the calculations are extremely taxing, and the court practitioners had made the system infinitely complex by giving meaning to subdivisions of measurement and to various interactions between the heavenly bodies in play.12)

The divinations made by Khun Phaen and his teachers and battle foes do not use fully fledged Jyotisha, but other systems which are based on the same principle of locating heavenly bodies within a map but which require much simpler forms of calculation. Several of their predictions seem to use the method known as mahathaksa (มหาทักษา), meaning “great skill.” To construct the birth chart, all that needs to be known is the lagna, the celestial body rising on the eastern horizon at the time of birth or, in an even simpler variant, the day of the week. The other bodies are assigned to their spheres of influence in simple sequence. To examine the forces acting at any future point, another chart can be made in the same way. In alternative versions, the calculation of which bodies are influential at any time is made through a simple arithmetical progression from the birth chart.

Astrology is only one of many systems of divination used in KCKP. Two others also focus on identifying auspicious and inauspicious times. The Circles method depends on the intersections between lunar and solar calendars. The conjunction of certain days in the week and certain dates in the (lunar) month are prescribed as auspicious, and others as inauspicious (Baker and Pasuk 2010, 319, note 23). The Three-Tiered Umbrella uses the birth-year and age to locate a certain position on a chart where each segment is associated with a legendary episode (mostly from the Ramakian) with metaphorical meaning (ibid., 208, note 4). Nowadays, charts setting out the results of these and similar methods are published in manuals such as Phrommachat.13) Possibly something similar is indicated when manuals are mentioned in KCKP. In the 1680s, La Loubère wrote that an “Almanac which he [the king] causes Annually to be made by a Brame [Brahman] Astrologer, denotes to him and his Subjects the lucky or unlucky days for most of the things they used to do” (La Loubère 1793, 66).

Besides these divinations based on aspects of time, Khun Phaen and other characters in KCKP gather many different omens from nature. They look at the clouds for shapes that predict success or failure. They examine the breath through their nostrils to gauge the chances of success in any endeavor and to determine what direction to head when starting out. They listen to sounds made by insects and animals, which are categorized as propitious or unpropitious in manuals. They study the brightness of the stars and the halo of the moon to predict the outcome of warfare or other exploits. They tease meanings out of dreams that foretell events not only in the immediate future but over decades ahead. They interpret omens that come from visual oddities (seeing someone without a head) or unusual events (a staircase breaking). Many of these omens and signs are documented in old manuals, including various versions of the Manual on Victorious Warfare (ตำราพิชัยสงคราม tamra phichai songkhram), a military treatise.14) What is striking is the sheer variety of these predictive methods. At decisive moments, the characters in KCKP will use not one but several.


Khun Phaen is also educated in methods to manipulate the hidden forces in the world. These methods can be classified into three types: formulas; powerful devices found in nature; constructed devices.

The formulas may be spoken out loud or chanted under the breath (often several times) and then blown. Phlai Kaeo is specifically trained in using hua jai (หัวใจ) or heart formulas, an abbreviated form made by using the initials of words in the original formula, or the initial letter of several formulas (see Fig. 2). These have the advantage of being easier to memorize and quick to use.


Fig. 2Hua jai Heart Formula

These formulas seem to influence events through two pairs of forces: repulsion, warding off danger or, in its most complete form, providing invulnerability; and attraction, inducing love, sympathy, or good fortune; constraint, preventing an event or action; and release, removing constraints, such as undoing locks and chains, or ensuring a smooth delivery at birth. The four formulas which appear most often in KCKP are for these four actions respectively. The Great Prescription (มุขใหญ่ muk yai) formula provides protection or invulnerability. The Great Beguiler (มหาละลวย mahalaluai) induces love and is used not only to charm women but to win sympathy from those in authority. The Subduer (สะกด sakot) is principally used to immobilize enemies during battle. The Great Loosener (มหาสะเดาะ mahasado) opens locks and chains, induces a smooth childbirth, and removes other blockages.15)

The second method uses substances that are found in nature and believed to be intrinsically powerful (ขลัง khlang) because of some unusual property that defies the laws of nature. A prominent example is mercury, a metal that acts like a liquid, which conveys protection by flowing to any part of the body threatened by penetration. Other examples are: cat’s eye, a semi-precious stone which looks like an animal’s organ; hard, stone-like cores found in plants or animal’s eggs; and splinters of tusk that are lodged in trees or ant-heaps by charging elephants in musth. Mostly these objects are carried to convey protection or invulnerability.

A variant of this method consists of precious or powerful objects inserted under the skin, and believed to be capable of moving to block the intrusion of a blade or bullet. The Chiang Mai military commander, Saentri Phetkla, makes extensive use of these devices:

 He had a jet gem embedded in his head,
 golden needles in each shoulder, a large diamond in the middle of his forehead, a lump of fluid metal in his chest, and herbal amber and cat’s eye in his back.
 His whole body was a mass of lumps and bumps in ranks and rows. Since birth he had never been touched by a weapon, and did not carry even the scratch from a thorn. (p. 631)

The third method uses constructed devices. Simple forms mentioned in KCKP include water, betelnut, or powdered clay that have been sacralized by reciting formulas; spirit oil extracted from a corpse; beads made with sacralized powder and powerful herbs; and lip wax, especially a variant made from the face mask of a corpse. Among more complex forms, two prominent examples are an adept’s knife and yantra. These devices serve as media for transferring the power of an adept to somebody else.

An adept’s knife (มีดหมอ mit mo, see Fig. 3) has to be made by an adept using special materials and observing strict practices, and “activated” through a ritual, often convoking many different spirits and deities to endorse the knife’s power. Other people can then use the knife and tap the adept’s own powers which have been instilled in the article. These knives are kept at home to ward off danger; carried into battle where they convey invulnerability; steeped in water to make medicine; and placed on the subject’s head during ceremonies to overcome spirit possession. Among the four forces, the knife has the force of protection, but can also be used to defeat the protective forces of enemies. Khun Phaen uses an adept’s knife to neutralize the spirits and other protective devices before invading Khun Chang’s house. Skystorm (ฟ้าฟื้น fa fuen), the sword that Khun Phaen has specially made, is a superlative version of an adept’s knife. The manufacture begins with the collection of an array of metals with connotations of power and protection:


Fig. 3 Adept’s Knife

 Metal from the peaks of a relic stupa, a palace, and a gateway. Metal fastening for the corpse of a woman who died while with child. Metal binding from a used coffin. Fixing for a gable board. Diamond bolt.
 Bronze pike. Copper kris. Broken regal sword. Metal goad. Bolt from a gateway. Mushroom nail. Five-colored smart metal. Household metal. All genuine articles.
 Fluid metal. Ore cast at the Phrasaeng mine. Iron ore and metal from Kamphaeng and ­Namphi. Gold. Bronze. Nak from Aceh. Genuine silver. Forest copper. (pp. 317–318)

In some modern manuals for making an adept’s knife, the recipe has been adapted from this passage in KCKP.

The constructed device that appears most often in KCKP is the yantra (ยันตร์ yan, เลขยันตร์ lek yan). These diagrams probably began in the Indic tradition of asceticism as visual aids for meditation. One of the simplest is a pair of interlocking triangles to aid con­centration on duality (see Fig. 4). The device then spread widely, particularly within Buddhist traditions, but was adapted in very different ways in various regions. Tibetan tanka paintings are one such variant. Another are designs found on Japanese armor. The mandala used in architecture and statecraft is a specific form.


Fig. 4 Duality Graphic

In the Southeast Asian tradition, these devices have been developed by the addition of several other visual elements. The geometrical shapes have acquired symbolic meaning; for example, a circle or oval signifies the Buddha. Pictures of powerful figures have been added, including Hindu deities, legendary figures such as Hanuman, imaginary creatures from the Himaphan Forest, and fierce animals such as lion, tiger, and snake. Written formulas are also included, usually in Pali language in Khom script,16) and often in abbreviated form. Sequences of numbers may be added, again in Khom script, with individual numbers signifying a deity or a formula, and longer sequences having supernatural significance (see Fig. 5). As McDaniel (2011, 103) notes, these various elements constitute “an algebraic system that seeks to manipulate a series of knowns in order to control or uncover a wide array of unknowns.”


Fig. 5 Narai Transforming Yantra

Yantra thus bring together devices from several traditions including ascetic mastery, the Hindu pantheon, Buddhist cosmology, spirit beliefs, and numerology. They must be made by an adept under very strict conditions, and activated by pronouncing formulas. Their primary function is to provide protection, but they can also attract, constrain, and release. They are a means of transferring the intrinsic power of the adept to another person, animal, or thing by using a wide array of media. They can be tattooed on the skin; drawn on wearable articles such as shirts, bandanas, or cloth fashioned into belts and rings; inscribed on metal and strung round the arm, neck or waist; or written with powder that is then daubed on the forehead or poured into the haft of a weapon (Bizot 1988; Yanchot 1995; Becchetti 1991; Bunce 2001; Thep Sarikabut n.d., esp. Vol. 1).

The single most common form of these yantra devices found in KCKP is the takrut (ตะกรุด), a sheet of thin, pliable metal such as tin or gold, which is inscribed with the yantra then rolled around a cord and tied around the neck, waist, or upper arm (see Fig. 6). Complex designs may extend across several sheets strung on a single cord.


Fig. 6Takrut, Unrolled and Rolled


These methods have roots in several traditions, some of which originated in India but have been adapted and rearranged over many centuries in Southeast Asia.

The first of these roots goes back to the Vedas, the great texts of Hinduism. Besides three volumes of philosophical texts, there is a fourth volume with a long inventory of beliefs and practices about threats to man and how to resist them. This inventory includes ways to influence natural forces in the world, particularly to achieve protection against threats from disease, natural disasters, and the perfidies of fellow man.17) The methods include natural substances with supernatural powers, formulas for recitation, and devices constructed by adepts—the same three methods found in KCKP. They also utilize the same two pairs of forces: repulsion and attraction, constraint and release. The title of the compilation as Atharva Veda survives in Thai as อาถรรพณ์, athan (sometimes athap, athanpawet). In KCKP, athan means protection, particularly the convoking of supernatural forces to protect a city, palace, or other location. The term’s modern usage has broadened to mean supernaturalism in general.18) The historical connection between the Atharva Veda and the Thai concept of athan is tantalizingly unknown.19)

The second of these roots, also from Indic tradition, is a belief that mastery over oneself conveys mastery over natural processes; through mental control and ascetic practices, a rishi or yogi attains supernatural abilities. In life stories of the Buddha, he was schooled in ascetic practice and acquired extraordinary powers such as flying through the air, multiplying his body, and recalling previous lives. Samuel (2008) argues that the Buddha adopted the ascetic practices of local shaman cults. Buddhist schools that are wary of such supernaturalism have argued that the Buddha forbade his followers to use such practices on grounds of danger, but after his death, some followers continued to use them and pass them on by teaching (Fic 2003, 42–44).

In India from the sixth to twelfth century, this idea of mastery through asceticism was combined with other folk practices and spirit beliefs to become the core of a distinct strand of Buddhism later dubbed as tantric or esoteric (Samuel 2008; Davidson 2002). According to one theory, this strand emerged in the context of an era of vicious warfare, and spread because the metaphor of individual power through mastery was appealing to warrior princes. Davidson (2002, 114) suggests that this appeal for warrior rulers was behind the spread of this strain of Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia, but his evidence is very scanty. The passage of the idea of mastery from Indic tradition to Southeast Asia is uncharted, and probably took multiple routes. The main point is that the concept of mastery was present at the core of Buddhist teaching—in the life story of the Buddha—and was thus available for adoption and adaptation in different ways in various local ­Buddhist cultures (on which more below).

The third of these roots lies in the belief, found throughout Southeast Asia and indeed in much of the world, in the pervasive presence of spirits and deities that determine processes in the natural world. Khun Phaen has the skill to raise and direct spirits. He has a personal team of spirits and adds a particularly powerful one made from the fetus of an unborn child. These spirits provide him with personal protection, and also are able to attack and remove similar protection from opponents. In addition, Khun Phaen has the ability to summon up spirits in the surrounding area for special uses ranging from emergency transport to attacking his enemies. Finally he has the ability to convert grass into spirit warriors—considered one of the most difficult skills in the repertoire.20)

In the Siamese tradition, the methods of athan, the idea of mastery, and the belief in spirits have become closely intertwined. Mastery of oneself gives the adept the ability to control spirits and activate natural forces using athan’s repertoire of formulas, unusual substances, and other devices. In the manufacture of his sword, Khun Phaen draws on all three of these techniques. He first collects an array of unusual metal substances, then combines them to the accompaniment of many incantations, and finally convokes the spirits and deities to instill the weapon with exceptional power.

In modern Thai, this complex of practices to influence the hidden forces in nature is called sai or saiyasat (ไสยศาสตร์), derived possibly from Sanskrit saya, dark, or from a Khmer word meaning excellence or expertise. But in KCKP, this word appears only twice.21) Instead, KCKP uses two other vocabularies. The first is disarmingly simple. An adept is khon di (คนดี), a “good person,” and the practice as a whole is thang nai (ทางใน), the “inner ways,” a phrase which nicely captures the depth of the knowledge, its arcane origins, and its reliance on the innate talent of the practitioner. What is striking about this vocabulary, which appears in the older passages of the tale, is its use of simple, everyday words. This simplicity portrays the practice as familiar, normal, universal.22)

The second vocabulary uses words of Indic origin: มนตร์, mon is the Thai rendering of mantra, meaning a Buddhist prayer or formula; คาถา, khatha is a verse in a Buddhist Pali text; อาคม, akhom, from Sanskrit agama meaning “that which has come down,” is used among other things for the inventory of prescriptions found in the Atharva Veda (Sharma 1979, xviii); เวท, wet derives from Veda, the Hindu scriptures. In KCKP, these individual words are used almost interchangeably for a specific exercise of skill, such as intoning a formula. They are also used in various conjoined forms (wet mon, khatha akhom, etc.) to refer to the practice of these skills in general. Alternatively, these skills are called วิชา, wicha, from Sanskrit meaning knowledge. This is the same word which, via Indo-European, gives us “witch” and the fashionable modern version, “wican.” This vocabulary suggests exceptional forms of knowledge authenticated by age, exotic origins, and textual recording—lore.

In Siam, this tradition of lore is closely integrated with the everyday practice of the Buddhist monkhood. Khun Phaen’s teachers are all abbots. Buddhist scriptures are taught alongside astrology and the formulas and mantras of lore with no sense of incompatibility.

In some Buddhist cultures, these practices have been isolated as a specific tradition. François Bizot has argued that this was the case in Cambodia where practices which he calls “tantric” became mainstream at the height of the Angkorian era, but subsequently continued as a distinct, heretical, and covert sect (Bizot 1976; 1981).23) In Siam, however, practices of self-mastery seem always to have been part of the mainstream Buddhist tradition, particularly (but not exclusively) among the “forest” rather than “town-­dwelling” lineages. Ascetics with miraculous powers have prominent roles in old legends and chronicles, and are integrated into the iconography of wat decoration. The introduction of a purer form of Buddhism from Sri Lanka in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries failed to displace old practices. King Mongkut’s reforms in the mid nineteenth century and, more importantly, the bureaucratization of the sangha by his successor, have since shifted the balance, but far from completely. To this day, monks carry out athan rites for house building, and bless amulets which are the modern-day equivalent of yantra. “Forest” monks imitate the Buddha’s life, including extreme forms of asceticism, and are accredited with supernatural powers (Tambiah 1970, 49–51; 1984, 45, 315). Royalty, politicians, generals, and senior police officers endeavor to associate themselves with these figures in order to draw on their power.

In KCKP, the practice of lore is almost entirely a male preserve. The skills are learnt so a male can fulfill his role as protector. All the adepts are male. All the teachers are male.24) Only men are present at ritual events such as making Khun Phaen’s sword or convoking the spirits before a battle or other risky exploit. Women are not only excluded from the practice, but sometimes figure as a threat to the power of lore. Khun Phaen takes off all his protective devices before making love to Wanthong. When they steal into the Chiang Mai palace, Khun Phaen warns his son against fondling palace women as that might weaken the lore that has enabled them to put everyone to sleep and enter the palace unseen:

 Seeing his son fondling, Khun Phaen clenched his fist and thumped his son’s back. “This is royal property! Don’t touch! If you get carried away, we’ll fail.
 We shouldn’t do this, you see, we’re phrai. These are ladies who are forbidden to others. What’s more, to be expert in warfare, you shouldn’t dally with women.” (p. 662)

From Yantra to Amulet

The amulet is the lineal descendant and modern equivalent of the yantra. Like yantra, amulets can be carried on the body; their principal benefit is protection;25) they incorporate exotic materials believed to have intrinsic power; they are crafted under strict conditions by a teacher, preferably from the ascetic tradition, known to have exceptional powers; they serve as a means of transferring the adept’s powers to other people; they are largely a male preserve; and they are immensely popular.26)

The emergence of the amulet is a long story, only partially glimpsed.27) In KCKP, the amulet in its modern form does not figure at all among the vast range of protective devices mentioned. Indeed, images of the Buddha are not part of the lore in KCKP. In some yantra today, the Buddha is depicted symbolically by a circle or collection of circles. However, in the yantra named in KCKP and identifiable today, only one has such a ­symbol—the chakra or wheel yantra, which is inscribed on the stock of the Skystorm sword (see Fig. 7)—and only in a stylized form.28) In KCKP, the Buddhism of sermons, Jatakas, and scriptures on the one hand, and the lore for divining and manipulating the supernatural forces in the world on the other, are closely associated through the wat, yet still delicately separate.


Fig. 7 Wheel Yantra

The one device in KCKP that partially resembles a modern amulet is a phakhawam (พระภควำ), a word collapsed from Phra Gavampati, an early disciple of the Buddha.29) A phakhawam is usually a small, almost spherical metallic image, showing the monk with hands over eyes, and sometimes extra pairs of arms for covering other orifices (see Fig. 8). In KCKP, these images are placed in the mouth to give power to speech, carried into battle for protection, and steeped in water used to induce invulnerability.


Fig. 8Phakhawam

The form of the modern amulet seems to have developed from votive tablets, phra phim, small images of the Buddha made by pressing clay into a mold (Pattaratorn 1997). The earliest examples of these tablets may have been brought to Siam by itinerant monks from South Asia and have been found at many early archeological sites. Later, these images were often made in large quantities to be placed inside stupas or affixed in rows on the walls of wat buildings to enhance the religiosity of these sites. Such votive tablets, retrieved from a ruined wat or stupa, and known as “broken-wall Buddhas,” later became popular as protective devices. A few amulets today are believed to have originated in this way (Srisakra Vallibhotama 1994, 81–82, cited by Chalong 2013).

In the early to mid nineteenth century, some monks manufactured amulets with a Buddha image. We cannot be sure the practice was not present earlier, but older amulets known today all seem to be of the “broken-wall” type (see above). The modern form of the amulet seems to combine the Buddha image of the votive tablet with the convenient portability of a takrut. This form was possibly inspired by the popularity in the mid-nineteenth century of small Buddha images with a hollow cavity containing a ball, which had been imported from China and dubbed phra kring, “bell Buddhas.” Today the most famous of the early amulet-makers is Somdet To (สมเด็จโต, also known as Phra ­Phutthachan), a monk who lived from around 1788 to 1872. According to one of the many versions of his life, he was a son of King Rama I, sired on a northern peasant girl. He was appointed abbot of Wat Rakhang in Bangkok, had a close relationship with King Rama IV, and became famous for his ascetic practice and supernatural powers (McDaniel, 2011, ch.1). He made several types of protective device, including yantra, but also Buddha amulets which are the most desired and most expensive in the market today.

Somdet To also wrote a manual on amulet making which shows the close similarity to the creation of yantra. In Somdet To’s description, the amulet is made from powerful materials (enchanted powder, precious metals, herbs used in lore) following strict rules, including the recitation of mantra, and finally is “activated” by ritual (ibid., especially 189–219). Also like yantra, an amulet is effective only if made by a monk or adept famous for supernatural power (like Somdet To). In addition, most Buddha amulets have a small yantra inscribed on the reverse side.

Over the nineteenth century, some other famous monks produced amulets which are now highly valued, and the acquisition of these amulets became popular among the high elite. King Chulalongkorn sought them out during his upcountry tours. By the early twentieth century, amulets were being produced by monks famous for asceticism and supernatural power in many parts of the country, and the habit of acquisition spread more widely as mobility increased with the coming of roads and railways. Nobles and members of the emerging commoner middle class made pilgrimages to honor famous monks and brought back their amulets as mementos.

But only slowly did the amulet become the dominant protective device. Official patronage played a role. Since the Ayutthaya era, military leaders have distributed protective devices to their troops, mostly yantra in various forms. Troops sent to engage with the French in Cambodia in 1940 were given amulets but only senior officers and only an amulet with the image of a monk rather than the Buddha (Textor 1960, 526; Ruth 2011, 131–132). During the scares caused by bombing of Bangkok during World War II, the devices sought for protection were still mainly yantra and sacred water (Lawan ­Chotamara 1984, 228–229, cited by Chalong 2013). In the 1950s, Robert B. Textor drew up an inventory of supernatural devices found in a village outside Bangkok. He listed 118 objects as well as Buddha-image amulets. Simple amulets made from plaster were being manufactured by monks in the village, and Textor’s informants estimated that 90 to 100 percent of households had one. But another 20 devices were owned by the same percentage (Textor 1960; 1973). Amulets were popular but not yet dominant. Writing in the 1960s and looking back to the recent past, W. A. R. Wood (1965, 88) placed the Buddha amulet as just one among many protective devices in everyday use:

There are dozens of different kinds—tattoo marks, written formulas, knotted strings, tiny images of the Buddha, precious stones, dried seeds, needles in the body, and others too numerous to mention.

Chalong Soontravanich traces the final rise to dominance of the modern amulet in two phases. The first took place in the era of lawlessness, banditry, and gangsterism after World War II. A small amulet market appeared in Bangkok. Experts authored two weighty biographies of Somdet To, compiled a compendium of known amulets, and identified a “League of Five” amulets of highest value. Businessmen sponsored the production of amulets by famous monks in batches of several thousand. Official patronage now focused on the amulet. The prime minister, Phibun Songkhram, distributed amulets to troops sent to Korea, and to constituents at the 1957 election (Textor 1960, 526). Soldiers who volunteered to fight in Vietnam in 1967 were given Buddha amulets by their commanding officers, by monks at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and by the prime minister (Ruth 2011, 45, 48, 67, 131–132). When Barend Terwiel surveyed supernatural practices in a Ratchaburi village in 1967, he found people wearing various protective devices including tattoos, yantra designs, sacred thread, and splinters of wood, but

Undoubtedly the most popular [protective] object which is worn on a cord or chain around a man’s neck is the image of the Buddha. These images can be cast from metal, or carved out of piece of wood, ivory or resin, but the most common traditional ones are those manufactured from a mixture of many ingredients, pressed in a mould and baked. (Terwiel 1975, 62)

The second phase, according to Chalong, took place against the background of the war against communist insurgency in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the spread of mass media including newspapers, magazines, and television. By the 1980s, amulets had become prominent enough to warrant a major study by a leading international anthropologist (Tambiah 1984). In this era, businessmen and generals made merit by sponsoring the production and distribution of amulets to soldiers and villagers in the affected areas. Enterprising monks began manufacturing amulets on a large scale to raise funds for constructing wat buildings and schools. Among the most popular were amulets produced by Luang Phor Khoon, who was emerging as the most famous forest monk of the era. The price of his amulets soared in 1993 when survivors of two disasters, a factory fire and a hotel collapse, publicly attributed their fortune to their Luang Phor Khoon amulets (Pattana 2012, ch.5; Jackson 1999). The popularity of amulets reached another stage in 2006–7 when a particular physical form, known as Jatukam-Ramathep, was no longer tied to a particular origin but effectively “franchised”30) for production at many different places which competed by adding value in production materials and methods and by price-cutting, creating a brief marketing frenzy (Pattana 2012, ch.7; Reynolds 2011).

Conclusion: Protection, Power, and the Buddha

In premodern Siam, seeking protection against danger was a key organizing principle of belief, ritual, education, and social structure. Protection was the main (though not sole) benefit of a vast range of devices and techniques culled from various traditions and described collectively as “knowledge.” The exchange of labor (or other services) for protection lay at the basis of the sakdina hierarchy and other forms of patronage. The ability to provide protection was partly a function of ascribed status, but also a skill gained through education and asceticism. The provision of protection was very much a male preserve.

The development of the lore of protection has a long but largely invisible history. There is some connection back to early Indic tradition, particularly that represented by the Atharva Veda, evident in the survival of the term athan as well as the similarity between the principles and devices found in that text and in Thai lore. The belief in supernatural power developed by ascetic practice, as well as belief in the role of spirits as the moving forces behind natural processes, are two other key elements of lore. What is striking is the way that these three elements are combined. An adept who practices self-mastery can convoke the spirits and activate the latent power of special substances. Yantra are the most prominent device in KCKP perhaps because of their ability to accommodate a range of techniques of power—the use of special substances in manufacture; the depiction of divine beings, powerful animals, magic numbers, and verbal formulas in the designs; the ascetic discipline required for manufacture; and the use of ritual for “activation.” Yantra are assemblies of power.

Between the era of KCKP and the present, this wide range of devices has largely been replaced by one form, the Buddha amulet.31) In part this is because other forms have suffered a decline in popularity. A businessman can wear several amulets concealed under his shirt or in his pockets, but would probably feel ill-at-ease sporting a shirt dyed with yantra, a phrajiat bandanna round his neck, a phirot ring of plaited cotton on his finger, a palat khik wooden phallus dangling from his belt, a tattoo visible over his collar, a small buffalo charm or phakhawam carried in his mouth, and his lips smeared with beeswax.32)

The form of the modern amulet seems to have evolved as a marriage between the votive tablet and the takrut, a yantra strung on a cord. It grew in popularity very gradually over a century and a half. The amulet incorporates many elements of earlier devices, particularly the use of powder made from powerful substances, and the need to be made by a powerful adept and “activated” by ritual.

The rise of the amulet at a time when other devices were falling out of favor attests to the continuing importance of protection. But there is another important aspect of the story.

None of the protective devices found in KCKP feature an image of the Buddha. Excerpts from Buddhist texts were used in the composition of yantra and in the ritual of activation, and some disciples of the Buddha also feature in the imagery of yantra, but this explicitly Buddhist contribution is a rather small part of the lore in KCKP. Of course, “seeking the refuge of the Triple Gem” is a fundamental concept of the liturgy. The Buddha is invoked as a source of protection in early Buddhist texts, and has probably always been prominent in protective rituals of the court. But in the popular practice portrayed in KCKP, the Buddha as image or voice is noticeably absent. With the rise of the amulet, the Buddha has been transformed into the primary force of the protection once sought from many other sources in popular tradition. Production of amulets is now virtually monopolized by the wat and is a major part of the laity’s interaction with the wat. The process of producing amulets has been elaborated with the ritual paraphernalia of Buddhism—sacred threads, sutta chants, holy water—to a far greater extent than the production of protective devices described in KCKP. The chants which finally “activate” a modern amulet invoke the power of the Buddha alone, whereas the parallel ceremonies in KCKP call on every possible variant of spirit and every known deity of the Indic tradition.

Some “reformists” decry amulets as antithetical to the Buddhist emphasis on the individual’s progress towards spiritual perfection “because protection and good fortune result from power developed through meditative and moral discipline” (Cook 2012, 37). But as Cook demonstrates, others argue that most people are only a small way along the path to perfection and can be helped in the short term by wearing devices which are instilled with the power of an adept further along the path. Besides, amulets and other protective devices are often believed to be only effective or more effective if the wearer observes good moral practice—an idea not found in KCKP. In this modern rationalization, the inner power of the seeker and the instilled power of the device are not contradictory but complementary, based on a single ideology of protection and power.

In short, compared to the era of KCKP, in ritual and ideology the Buddha now has a much larger role in the provision of protection, and the provision of protection has a much larger role in popular Buddhism.

Accepted: July 27, 2012


The illustrations in this article are by Muangsing Janchai. Thanks to two referees for very useful ­comments and advice, and also to Craig Reynolds, Joanna Cook, Pattana Kitiarsa, Trasvin Jittidecharak, and Chalong Soontravanich.


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Yanchot, Achan Hon (Chayamongkhon Udomsap) ญานโชติ, อาจารย์โหร (ชัยมงคล อุดมทรัพย์). 1995. Khamphi sayasat chabap sombun คัมภีร์ไสยศาสตร์ ฉบับสมบูรณ์ [The complete manual of supernaturalism]. Bangkok: Sinlapa Bannakhan.

1) The term “amulet” is sometimes used to describe protective devices of all kinds. In this article, the term refers to this specific type.

2) Some of the most important works defining the field have been Akin (1996), Tambiah (1976), Hanks (1962), Wolters (2008), and Ishii (1986).

3) Today there are many printed versions of the same text; the best known is published by Khurusapha, a government textbook printer, in three volumes.

4) All page references to KCKP refer to Baker and Pasuk (2010).

5) Today ครอง khrong has acquired a broader and softer meaning, but the definition in Pallegoix’s early nineteenth-century dictionary is “to rule, to govern, to repress.”

6) Late Ayutthayan history is strewn with stories of great nobles who lose position, possessions, and life in succession disputes and court intrigue.

7) Kanburi is the name used in KCKP for the old site of Kanchanaburi, 17 kilometers west of the modern town. This frontier outpost was abandoned in the wars of the late eighteenth century and never reoccupied.

8) A form of mantra abbreviated for easy memorization and quick application.

9) The first letter of a mantra or formula, usually in Pali or old Khmer. This is basic training for making yantra (see below).

10) See below.

11) The standard modern work with details of two methods of calculation is Wisandarunakon ([1965] 1997). This manual was originally prepared for the court in 1923 using new methods of calculation. It was republished in 1965 and presented to the king.

12) In Siam in 1687–88, Simon de La Loubère acquired a document describing the calculations for the sun and moon. He had it translated into French and examined by M. Cassini of the Royal Academy of Sciences, who pronounced the technique “ingenious.” The calculations appear similar to those used in Thai astrology today. The document is not found in the English translation of La Loubère, but in Jacq-Hergoualc’h (1987, 488–503).

13) There are several compendia of astrology and other predictive techniques published under this title. See for example Hora Burajan (2006).

14) The most extensive and accessible edition is Tamra phichai songkhram chabap ratchakan thi 1 (2002). Parts of a manual are reproduced in facsimile and French translation in Pattaratorn (2011).

15) There are several compilations of formulas and yantra today, often extracted from the works of Thep Sarikabut. As they tend to be geared towards achieving success in business, they are rather different from the selection in KCKP, but still enshrine the principles of repulsion-attraction and ­constraint-release.

16) Khom is a script adapted from Khmer and used in religious and historical texts. Several other scripts are also used in yantra, but Khom is the most common. The formulas may also be in Thai or other languages but Pali is more common.

17) Two main recensions of the Atharva Veda have survived. This inventory forms the first of four parts in the Shaunakiya or northern recension. Dating is difficult and controversial but may be around the eleventh or twelfth century BC. Some scholars have speculated that this inventory is a record of local belief and practice in north India at the time the Vedas were composed. Others argue that the inventory may have earlier origins, perhaps in Central Asia (Witney 1905; Whitaker 2004; Michaels 2004).

18) The Royal Institute dictionary defines athan as follows: “Rites following saiyasat manuals to create auspiciousness and protect against danger, or to cause danger to others . . . recondite power believed to cause effects.”

19) However the Royal Institute dictionary insists on a connection by starting the definition cited in the previous note with “Something passed down from the Atharva Veda.”

20) According to Thep Sarikabut (n.d., Vol. 2, 24–25), making dummy soldiers by enchanting grass is the most advanced department of lore and very difficult to master. He had never seen a successful example and reported that Phrakhru Wimonkhunakon (Suk) of Wat Makham Thao, Chainat, a most famous practitioner who had studied the art, managed to transform only the legs and feet.

21) Both in passages which were probably added in the nineteenth century.

22) Today in Thailand these practices are associated with the Khmer. In the nineteenth century they were associated with the “Lao” (McDaniel 2011, 34–43). These associations are absent in KCKP. It seems that Thai modernity requires that the origin of these practices be found outside Siam, but not too far away, in countries sharing the same cultural history but deemed less modern.

23) McDaniel (2011, 106–108) counter-argues that terms such as “tantric” and “esoteric” are misleading in the Southeast Asian context, and that this “stratum” of Buddhism has always been part of the mainstream.

24) There is one partial exception, and it is controversial. After Khun Phaen is put in jail, his mother takes over the education of her grandson, using Khun Phaen’s library. Some critics see this is a blemish in the plotting of KCKP. Others point out that the grandmother, after being widowed, takes on some of the “male” attributes of a household head.

25) Amulets also have the benefit of attraction, winning love and favor.

26) On the modern process of creating amulets, see especially Tambiah (1984), Cook (2012), Swearer (2004), and Turton (1991). Stengs (1998) emphasizes the male bias but also notes the emergence of equivalent devices for female use.

27) This discussion draws heavily on Chalong Soontravanich (2005; 2013).

28) The Thepnimit mantra comes in several different designs, some with and some without Buddha symbols.

29) In the canonical literature and early commentaries from Sri Lanka, Gavampati is mentioned among the second group of disciples of the Buddha, associates of Yasa, but with no detail. Probably on account of his name meaning “Lord of Cattle,” other early texts gave him a background as an ox herder, and a quirky trait of chewing the cud. He also displayed supernatural ability to hold back a river that threatened to swamp the Buddha and a group of disciples. From around the fourteenth century onwards, texts appeared in Southeast Asia that celebrated 80 early disciples, including Gavampati, and gave several of them substantial biographies. He is described as so beautiful in appearance that he was often mistaken for the Buddha, and as a result used special powers to make himself ugly—hunched, potbellied, flat-faced. When he was approaching death, he set himself the task of converting Somphon (Sanskrit Sambala), a Brahman who stubbornly rejected Buddhism, by delivering a series of sermons on impermanence in which he stated that the human body was a “public place” because its nine orifices (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, urethra, anus) served only to emit impure excretions, and to admit impurities from the outside. Somphon was converted instantly, and went on to achieve nirvana. Gavampati subsequently also achieved nirvana, underwent a magnificent funeral ceremony presided over by the Buddha himself, and became an arahant. Since the Sukhothai era, Gavampati has been depicted in statuary as a potbellied monk, often known as Sangkachai or Mahakaccayana. In lore, images of Gavampati are credited with strong powers to convey invulnerability. See Lagirarde (2000, 57–78; 2003); Strong (2005); Kanchanakphan and Nai Tamra na Mueang Tai ([1961] 2002, 682); Yanchot (1995, 31–39).

30) An earlier and more limited form of such “franchising” emerged around amulets named after Khun Phaen (although they depict a Buddha in the usual way, not Khun Phaen). The originals were first named after the Suphanburi wat where they were made but later enterprisingly renamed as “Khun Phaen amulets,” after which other production sites appropriated the same branding tactic. The Suphanburi National Museum has an extensive display.

31) Some modern amulets contain the same kind of unusual substances found in KCKP, such as mercury, cat’s eye, or splinters of ivory, rather than the Buddha. Some feature famous monks, Hindu gods, or royal figures. Yet the vast majority have an image of the Buddha.

32) These items have not disappeared, but their usage is now much more limited than the Buddha amulet. Phrajiat bandanas are often distributed to soldiers along with amulets, and are worn by boxers. Palat khik are often carried discreetly. A few adepts still use a wide range of the devices found in KCKP; see for example the famous policeman, Khun Phan, brilliantly analyzed by Craig Reynolds (2011).