Charisma in the Margins of the State: Dara'ang Buddhism and the Khruba Holy Men of Northern Thailand

Article excerpt

Abstract: Dara'ang in Thailand practice a form of Theravada Buddhism similar to that found amongst many Tai-speaking populations in the upper Mekong region. A feature of this regional Buddhist tradition is a belief in ton bun (persons of merit), holy men who are renowned for their miraculous powers. In this paper I examine the relationship between the Dara'ang of northern Thailand and a contemporary holy man, Khruba Theuang. In doing so, I argue for an understanding of religious charisma that is embedded within the context of cultural revitalization and a recognition of the distinct forms of Buddhism being produced within the margins of the state.

Keywords: Dara'ang, Palaung, Buddhism, Thailand, monks, charisma

Résumé : Les Dara'ang de Thaïlande pratiquent une forme de bouddhisme Theravada similaire à ce que l'on trouve chez plusieurs populations de langue tai dans la région du haut Mékong. Une caractéristique de cette tradition bouddhiste régionale est la croyance en des ton bun (personnes de mérite), des saints hommes qui sont renommés pour leurs pouvoirs miraculeux. Dans cet article, je m'intéresse aux rapports entre les Dara'ang du nord de la Thaïlande et un saint homme contemporain, Khruba Theuang. En ce faisant, je plaide pour la compréhension du charisme religieux qui se trouve enchâssé dans le contexte de revitalisation culturelle et pour une reconnaissance des diverses formes de bouddhisme produites à l'intérieur des marges de l'État.

Mots-clés : Dara'ang, Palaung, bouddhisme, Thaïlande, moines, charisme

Introduction

In this article I examine the relationship between the Dara'ang community of Huai Dam1 in northern Thailand and a contemporary charismatic monk known as Khruba Theuang Natasilo. The ton bun (literally source of merit) tradition of northern Thailand, which revolves around holy men reputed to possess miraculous powers, is found in various forms across the Tai speaking Buddhist world (Cohen 2001). In northern Thailand today a network of ton bun monks known by the traditional honorific title "khruba" lead movements to revive the old Buddhist traditions of the region, modelling their mission on the Ufe of Khruba Siwichai (1878-1939 CE). Through my analysis of Dara'ang participation in the movement of Khruba Theuang, I take issue with the characterization of religious charisma as an inherent property of their person. I argue for a more situated understanding of the popularity of khruba monks in the highlands, one that is embedded within the context of cultural revitalization and the distinct religious traditions being produced and reproduced within the margins of modern state Buddhism (Tiyavanich 1997).

Dara'ang in Thailand

The Dara'ang are a highland Mon-Khmer speaking population with a long history of Theravada Buddhism. Better known as Palaung in English, the Dara'ang of northern Thailand refer to themselves as "Dara'ang Re'ng" or "Red Dara'ang," a sub-group identification based upon the colour of skirts worn by Dara'ang Re'ng women. This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in the Dara'ang village of Huai Dam during a nine-month period in 2002-2003 and a fifteen-month period in 2007-2008, as well as interviews and fieldwork undertaken at Khruba Theuang"s temple of Wat Den.

The village of Huai Dam sits within the borders of the Chiang Dao Forest Reserve of Chiang Mai province. Like many highland ethnic minority villages, the Dara'ang who live there have no legal title to their land. They migrated to Thailand from Burma in 1983 to escape the ongoing violence that has marked life in Shan State since Ne Win's military coup.

Dara'ang began migrating from southern Shan State to the Thai-Burmese border in the late 1970s. A community grew on Angkhang Mountain, close to the site of the King's Royal Project Agricultural Research Centre (Howard and Wattanapun 2001:81). The Dara'ang who were living there were granted permission to settle within Thailand by King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) when he visited the area in 1982. …