Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Rural Male Leadership, Religion and the Environment in Thailand's Mid-South, 1920s-1960s

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Rural Male Leadership, Religion and the Environment in Thailand's Mid-South, 1920s-1960s

Article excerpt

This paper takes up three themes that address religion, banditry, policing and the environment in the Thailand's mid-south from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War. Here the mid-south refers to Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung and Songkhla, and sometimes additionally Trang, which have been studied as a regional unit by local Thai historians, although the history of these provinces is necessarily intertwined with provinces to the north and south. The water world of the Songkhla lakes basin connecting Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung and Songkhla is the geographical setting for many of the events that took place. The fertile mid-south is an ethnically and religiously complex region where mainland and island Southeast Asia meet and form a distinctive cultural and economic zone. (1)

The first theme is the way rural society and the provinces have been treated by historians, both Thai and foreign. It is conventional wisdom that Thai historiography has experienced great difficulty in writing about the history of the peasantry, the countryside and the agricultural base of the country's economy with any degree of conviction. To the extent that attention has been paid to these matters, this particular sub-field in Thai historiography has long been dominated by economic historians. (2) There are exceptions of course, but a glance at the standard histories in English, particularly where society, agriculture and the peasantry form the backdrop for the elite politics that follows in later chapters, would bear out this generalisation. (3)

The meagre coverage of provincial history is partly a question of source material. The reforming government of the fifth Jakri king (r. 1868-1910) sought to centralise administration and record keeping. Its main interest in the provinces was to encourage and enforce conformity to the new Bangkok paradigm. Still, it took until the Second World War before some mechanisms to extract tax and appoint officials from the centre operated successfully in the provinces. Colonial governments elsewhere in Asia were more efficient in this regard, for they bequeathed an institutional memory, an archive, which has been exploited by subsequent generations of scholars to write about rural social relations and the peasantry. In Siam, what is now being called 'disguised' or 'camouflaged' colonialism (ana-nikhom amphrang) meant that the full apparatus of Western colonial administration never fell into place. (4) Conventional historiography has created an exceptional narrative of nation building that has become entrenched in academic as well as popular thinking. (5) The sovereignty retained by the Siamese monarch disguised the colonial conditions, although extraterritorial treaties, numerous Western advisers in key ministries, and indebtedness to the Western imperial powers and other measures seriously compromised that sovereignty. Record keeping only became more fulsome after the administrative reforms of the 1890s, so the archive left to posterity is not as detailed as it might otherwise have been under a colonial government. Land gazetteers, censuses, corvee lists (apart from Bangkok) and tax records hardly existed until the early twentieth century. If too much is made of the limitations of sources, however, important questions are never asked.

The dearth of archival material is problematic enough, but, in addition, the gaze of Thai political and social historians has been riveted almost exclusively on the elite. This perspective stems from the court's dominance of historical writing over many centuries, but it is also the legacy of the Old Left intellectuals of the late 1940s and early 1950s, who were urban-based intellectuals with limited understanding of the social and economic problems in the countryside. As a result of the political changes of the mid-1970s and the brief episodes of participatory government at the time, this bias began to be corrected as the New Left returned from the maquis and took up academic appointments in Bangkok and in the expanding provincial universities. …

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