Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

State's Margins, People's Centre: Space and History in Southern Thai Jungles

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

State's Margins, People's Centre: Space and History in Southern Thai Jungles

Article excerpt


Nomadic foraging peoples, with their varying life-ways, may be taken as representative of the kinds of human-ecological adjustment that was common prior to the development and spread of horticultural-agricultural systems. This is not to claim that existing `nomads' should be seen as relies, or leftovers, in a framework of evolutionary development. (1) Nomadic forms of reproduction may, for example, arise where peoples are excluded from sharing in common resources by enemies, and may in response withdraw from cultivation or `settled' forms of lire into remote areas, where foraging economies offer the only mode of existence possible. The case of the Tasaday in the Philippines may be one such example, although the existence of the Tasaday is sometimes claimed to be a hoax (see Nance 1975, but see also Duhaylungsod 1993). It seems likely that at various times and places nomadic forms of social reproduction were pursued in parallel with other kinds of human-ecological adjustments, including horticulture and agriculture.

Many nomadic peoples live in complex interrelationships with neighbours where trade and exchange of specific objects (sometimes including people and/or their labour) create an integrated system, which permits several forms of social and economic adaptation to persist side-by-side. To describe these as interdependent systems should not however obscure the likelihood of exploitation. In the case of the Mbuti pygmies and their Bantu neighbours (Turnbull 1968) the relationship appears relatively balanced. In others, dominant groups enslaved, by stealth and violence, the nomadic peoples living nearby. Slavery and various forms of bondage appear to have been common in many parts of Southeast Asia.

It is further suggested that groups of people from the same ethno-linguistic background may at different times undertake different economic activities, for example, moving between foraging and pastoral adaptations (see for instance Denbow 1984 for Southern Africa). Benign or otherwise, where such complex systems have been displaced by the entailments of colonialism and/or incorporation into modern states, these older forms of adjustment cease to be viable. They may of course be replaced by other forms of symbiosis or interpenetration, with varying results. However, in most cases it is clear that the consequences are progressively less and less likely to favour the maintenance of indigenous nomadic life-ways and a viable system of cultural and social reproduction.

The `Aslian' Peoples

In this paper I shall discuss briefly the situation of the surviving small groups of nomadic foragers in the Southern Thai jungles who call themselves `Maniq'. These people are usually called `Sakai' in Thailand, and in early ethnography they were described as `Negritos'. Use of these terms today is generally considered pejorative, although they are still widespread. The Maniq are ethnically and culturally associated with relatives on the Malaysian side of the border and constitute the northernmost of the `Aslian' peoples. (2) I shall detail some of the ways in which their indigenous system of property and resource rights functioned, both internally and in relation to a broader system; I shall then outline the effects of contemporary transformations in their relations with the Thai state which has enclosed them. These groups have developed a variety of economic adjustments for several centuries, in a constant complex interplay with the other settled peoples increasingly encroaching on them; nonetheless, they have maintained a significant level of cultural, linguistic and social coherence. The present moment, where contemporary economic changes and the demands of the state have intersected in the last spaces of nomadic habitation, seems to signal the most threatening conditions of all.

Although the tribal minority peoples of the Malay Peninsula have been the subject of scholarship and administration for many decades, there have been only limited attempts to grasp their ethnological and historical continuities. …

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