From the Mountains and the Interiors: A Quarter of a Century of Research among Fourth World Peoples in Southeast Asia (with Special Reference to Northern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: The State of Play in 1970

Twenty-five years ago, in 1970, when the first volume of the Journal of South-East Asian Studies made its appearance, I was living in a rather remote mountain village in Phrao district, northern Thailand, about to complete a four-year field project with the Lahu Nyi. I was one of close to a dozen social and cultural anthropologists, at various stages in their professional careers from Ph.D. candidates (such as myself) to seasoned professionals (like the late Bill Geddes), at work among Thailand's so-called "northern hill tribes".(1) The small expatriate community in the charming Chiang Mai of those days readily joked about "the anthropologist behind every bush in the northern hills". In fact there were good reasons for this heavy concentration of anthropological research at that time. The 1960s were perhaps the halcyon days for social and cultural anthropology in the Western academy; naturally this happy situation was reflected in the numbers of doctoral candidates proceeding to the field. Moreover, within the mainland Southeast Asia of that time, only Thailand provided academic researchers with relatively easy and more-or-less safe access to its mountain peoples.

In those days only a few of us were engaged in finely-focused research: demographics and epidemiology, for example;(2) the majority had much more general ethnographic interests in the people among whom we were living. The reason for this was obvious. In the mid-1960s we knew very little, from a professional anthropological perspective, about these upland societies and cultures. Many of us felt that we had to complete the ethnographic spadework before we could devote ourselves to more finely focused research problems. We wanted to study, in as great a depth as time and our informants permitted us, such matters as the settlement patterns, the demographic characteristics and economic bases of highland village communities, the social structure of village societies, the ritual lives of whole communities, of households and of individuals, and the supernatural premises that underlie the highlanders' world views, whether concerning the mundane (farming, for example) or the transcendent worlds (the nature of souls, spirits, the afterworld, and so on). The major theoretical text that many of us carried in our intellectual baggage was Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma,(3) and it was not at all apparent that this highly idiosyncratic work would have immediate application to the North Thailand scene.

In 1970, apart from New Zealand geographer F.G.B. Keen's 48-page booklet The Meo of Northwest Thailand(4) and American cultural anthropologist Peter Kunstadter's The Lua' (Lawa) of Northern Thailand: Aspects of Social Structure, Agriculture, and Religion,(5) there was no published scholarly ethnographic monograph - based on recent field work, that is - on any of the upward-dwelling ethnic groups: Hmong, Iu Mien, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, Lua', Khammu or Htin (a highly simplified listing, since most of these peoples have subdivisions so significantly different from each other as to preclude any simple ethnographic generalization on the basis of a single ethnic label). Moreover, there were few unpublished dissertations (James Hamilton's "Ban Hong: Social Structure and Economy of a Pwo Karen Village in Northern Thailand" was one; another was Delmos Jones's "Cultural Variation among Six Lahu Villages, Northern Thailand"),(6) which might lend support to the published record. True, there were, by the end of 1969, a couple of collections of essays by professional anthropologists on the peoples of the northern uplands: the 1965 Cornell volume Ethnographic Notes on Northern Thailand, jointly edited by Lucien and Jane Hanks and Lauriston Sharp,(7) and a more recent collection of papers, the result of a 1967 conference sponsored by the Tribal Research Centre in Chiang Mai, entitled Tribesmen and Peasants in North Thailand. …