Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Political Assassination by Other Means: Public Protest, Sorcery and Morality in Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Political Assassination by Other Means: Public Protest, Sorcery and Morality in Thailand

Article excerpt

The past decade in Thailand has seen an increasing occurrence of the employment of sayasaat (magical knowledge) in the form of phithii saap chaeng (rites of cursing) in public protests and demonstrations. The performances are in fact acts of sorcery and, as argued below, exorcism. The last reported instance was in Chomthong District of Chiang Mai Province in June 1999. The Chomthong protests were staged by Northern Thai farmers. Together with the Dhammanaat Foundation (a Buddhist environmental conservation non-governmental organisation or NGO) and the Doi Inthanon National Park Authority (DINPA), they demanded the sequestration of the watershed in the area on the grounds that forest utilisation there reduces the availability of water in foothills and lowland areas. The farmers argued that this threatened their livelihood, which depends on cash crops such as kidney beans, garlic, cabbage, potatoes and fruit trees. They also demanded that ethnic minority hill communities should be resettled from the 'watershed' as defined by Dhammanaat, a definition based on that of the Royal Forestry Department (RFD). Representatives of the hill communities, however, argued that both upland and lowland forests should be conserved to ensure water flow and that their cultivation methods are environmentally sound, whereas lowland forests have been all but denuded for cash cropping and charcoal production. Their arguments were to no avail and, indeed, they were subjected to attempts at forced eviction by the Chomthong Watershed Conservation Club (CTWCC), a NGO established by the Northern Thai farmers, with the support of Dhammanaat, DINPA and the RFD. (1)

The events of June 1999 in Chomthong (which spilled over into Chiang Mai city) represented the eruption of simmering conflicts between Northern Thai farmers and minority hill communities over access to montane forests. The conflicts have become extremely complex and highly politicised, involving lowland communities, ethnic minorities, NGOs, academics and intellectuals concerned with a host of inter-related issues: sustainable development, environmental conservation, lowland farmers' rights vis-a-vis those of hill communities, social inclusion/exclusion, and the role of academics in civil society. (2) The Chomthong demonstrations saw five Chiang Mai University faculty burnt in effigy: Nidhi Aeusrivongse, a distinguished historian; Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, a political scientist; and Shalardchai Ramitanond, Anan Ganjanapan and Yos Santasombat from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. They were also the targets of sayasaat in the form of a phithii saap chaeng, which employed a ritual technique called phithii phaw phrik phaw khlya (rite of burning chillies, burning salt), publicly enacted by a group of local farmers.

The academics were targeted because they had advocated the rights of minority hill communities to forest access in opposition to CTWCC, having consistently argued that the cultivation systems of some of these communities (especially the Karen) are in fact environmentally sustainable, contrary to the views held by the RFD and the Land Department, as well as Dhammanaat and CTWCC. As a result of petitions by the farmers, the then Governor of Chiang Mai, Pravit Srisopone, singled out Chayan for public condemnation because of his out-spoken support for the hill communities. In a related incident the following month, Chayan was accused by the Deputy Secretary--General of the National Security Council of Thailand (NSCT) of being a 'traitor' (khaay chat, 'selling [out] the nation') because he had, in an international forum, 'barked like a dog' (haw) about the problems--exclusion from citizenship in particular--faced by these communities. (3)

These events reflect a heightened awareness of environmental and civil rights and other public interest issues in Thailand and the ways such concerns are consciously articulated in the public domain. Such issues, however, are not the immediate focus of this article; rather, it is the employment of sayasaat in demonstrations and protests over matters of community and public interest. …

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