Academic journal article Ethnology

Protest, Tree Ordination, and the Changing Context of Political Ritual(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Protest, Tree Ordination, and the Changing Context of Political Ritual(1)

Article excerpt

This article discusses a successful political protest in a village in northwestern Thailand and the community's tree ordination to further protect its forest from development. The protest and tree ordination are signs of the increasingly complex relationships that are changing the community's relative political, religious, and economic autonomy and tying different actors in the community into the wider political framework in ways that were not possible before. (Political protest, tree ordination, Thailand, political ritual, Shan)

In August 1996, the people of Thongmakhsan, a small Shan community in northwestern Thailand, organized a successful protest against the opening of a gravel pit near their village that would have contaminated the village's water supply. The ability to stage such a protest was dependent on historically particular circumstances: the national political situation in Thailand, the younger generation's willingness to confront authority, the support of most of the older generation, and divisions within the local elite so that at least one faction was actively supporting the protest. The protest was followed by a tree ordination ceremony to help protect the newly established community forest. Trees are "ordained" by inviting monks to chant and tying yellow robes around them. Since most lowland Thai are Buddhists and people respect monks, ordaining trees (making them into "monks" complete with yellow robes) would cause people to treat the trees as if they were real monks and not harm them. While the protest pitted the villagers against the local and provincial government, the tree ordination recreated its relationship with political authorities. Tree ordinations are politically and ecologically correct, at least for some segments of the national polity; at the King's request, tree ordinations were part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his reign (Agence France Presse 1997; Bangkok Post 1997).

Following an account of the protest against the gravel pit and the national and local contexts that made it possible, this essay discusses tree ordinations in Thailand and how they have changed from protests led by environmentalist monks to acts that the King supports. With this as background, an account of the tree ordination in Thongmakhsan shows how it connects people to larger political, economic, and social Networks. The protest and tree ordination are signs of the increasingly complex relationships that are changing the community's relative political, religious, and economic autonomy and tying different actors in the community into the wider political framework in ways that were not possible before.

THE PROTEST

When I returned to Thongmakhsan in the summer of 1998, Noy Nan, the man in whose home I stayed, brought out a box of photos to show me what had been going on in the village while I was gone. These showed three important events: the ceremony organized by the abbot in the third lunar month when the villagers made and burned a chedi (stupa) of fragrant wood in the temple compound; the protest they staged at the provincial office in Maehongson Town; and the tree ordination, which was connected to the protest. Since I did not observe any of these events, I rely on the villagers' reports for the following account.

Plans were made for the gravel pit long before the villagers were aware of them. In the summer of 1996, people in the village were working on a government-sponsored project to improve the major canal behind the village. The money for this project came from the subdistrict council (tambol council; see below). During this period, a businessman had found a place to mine gravel near Huay Khan, a small valley with a stream in the mountains north and west of the village. The businessman was hiring refugees from the Shall State to clear the area and erect cement pillars. People became aware of what was going on but were not sure what the work was for. …

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