Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Personhood and Political Subjectivity through Ritual Enactment in Isan (Northeast Thailand)

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Personhood and Political Subjectivity through Ritual Enactment in Isan (Northeast Thailand)

Article excerpt

This article investigates the ways in which subjectivity for the people of Chaiyaphum province in northeast Thailand (also known as Isan) is manufactured through their ritual life centred around the cult of Phaya Lae, an early-nineteenthcentury Lao chief. (1) Prior studies of the Thai northeast have discussed Isan identity from social, political and economic perspectives. (2) Yet Isan religious experience and its ritual enactments--which crucially form a local version of personhood--have been understudied. Through ethnographic investigation, I have observed how local people actively and creatively define themselves in relation to local and national religiopolitical power. First, I argue that Chaiyaphum personhood implies a duality of religious and political subjection in relation to the Phaya Lae cult. In the religious sphere, people submit themselves to the spiritual power of this supreme deity of the local cosmology. They ask him for protective power. Buddhist monks, spirit mediums and laypeople alike are under his spiritual jurisdiction. In the political sphere, rituals associated with the Phaya Lae cult enable the people of Chaiyaphum to perceive their subjectivity under Thai sovereignty through a process whereby the deity is embodied into the historical imagination of the state. My second argument extends to the way in which the affective power of local ritual enactment entangles with that of the state. By revisiting the concepts of 'theatre state' and 'galactic polity', I suggest that we can identify Thailand as a 'ritual state', wherein state political order and Isan peripheral religious power are mutually constitutive. Put differently, the mandala-style power of the Thai state is usually perceived as radiating from the centre, but its charismatic potency and power are ritually maintained by work done in the periphery.

The Phaya Lae monument stands prominently at a roundabout where two main roads meet, in the heart of Chaiyaphum city (fig. 1). The statue is encircled by the provincial government buildings: the city hall, provincial court, police station, culture office, and a school. Phaya Lae turns his face southward to Bangkok as a sign of loyalty to the Thai monarchy and the nation. The logic underlying this orientation shows the place of centralisation and urbanisation in Thai modern state-building whereby such urban monuments represent allegiance to the Bangkok court. (3) Phaya Lae's soaring monument also functions as Chaiyaphum's city pillar (lak mitang). As Barend J. Terwiel explains, the city pillar represents provincial autonomy; the highest political authority is attributed to it. Nowadays, the religious practices connected with the local guardian spirit of the lak muang are indicative of an attitude towards the seat of political power. (4) Nevertheless, the lak muang is not necessarily created by provincial authority. Villagers, by connecting with their tutelary spirit, are able to make their own object of political power in the locality. In his ethnography of a northern Thai village, Andrew Walker suggests that the lak miiang is closely associated with localised chiefly power. (5) He gives an account of an old 'lucky' tree where the shrine of the guardian spirit is located. Villagers see the tree as the lak muang of the village. He concludes that supernatural and local power are internally recreated by the villagers: 'The presence of these protective spirits is a clear sign of the ability of villagers to draw seemingly remote forms of power and authority into local domains and to replicate the trappings of chiefly authority.' (6)

According to Toem Wiphakphotjanakit's celebrated history of Isan, Phaya Lae was a Lao chief who led a group of his people from Vientiane to migrate to the Khorat Plateau in the early nineteenth century. He sought political protection from the Bangkok court during the reigns of King Rama II and King Rama III. He was killed in a battle against an invading Lao army led by Chao Anuwong. …

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