Craft, Currencies, and Ritual Orders in a Northern Thai village

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller is an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, Lund University. His PhD project examines the organization of the trade in jade between Northern Myanmar and China, and the role of jade in Chinese cosmology. Henrik has done fieldwork among jade traders and carvers in the town of Ruili on China’s border with Myanmar, as well as interviews with jade traders, carvers, and buyers in Shanghai, Kunming, Mandalay, Myitkina, and Chiang Mai for the project. 

 Henrik will share some of his field notes on the InFocus blog. The first blog post discusses economic cycles in a Northern Thai woodcarving village.

The field notes were taken during the PhD course Reading Craft: Itineraries of Culture, Knowledge and Power in the Global Ecumene, organized by the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden and Chiang Mai University.


We arrive at the village Ban Tawaii, some 20 kilometres from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, at around 9 am. The car drops us off in the main street, which is dominated by shops offering woodcarvings. The woodcarving craft has gained Baan Tawaii some reputation throughout Northern Thailand, especially as the local tambon (an administrative unit usually comprising around 10 villages) has been promoted as a specialized woodcarving area under the government-organized system of OTOP (‘One Tambon, One Product’). The materials for the carvings vary, but prominently include teak and mahogany. The carvers in a workshop that we visited the previous week were reluctant to talk about the sources of the hardwood, but a large part of it is likely smuggled in from neighbouring Myanmar. The illegal trade in hardwood comprises a vast and highly profitable trade in Myanmar’s borderlands; not the least in Ruili, the border town between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Shan state, where I conduct my fieldwork. Due to its economic profitability and environmental consequences, it is also one of many sources of the ethnic conflicts permeating these borderlands. Also, one of my informants of the Jingpo minority (a Kachin sub-group) in Ruili says that the traditional authority of ritual specialists, dhumsa, is being eroded partly due to the logging of forests, where spirits (nat) reside.

We stock up with a cup of coffee and head towards the house of Baan Tipmanee. We are all wearing white clothing, as is obligatory in the Ganesh ritual we are about to attend. The temperature is already above 30 degrees Celsius, and a light drizzle dampens our clothes. We walk for about ten minutes, until we arrive to a crowd of 70-100 people standing in a line along the road, all of them dressed in white. A loudspeaker transmits the chant of a male voice. Upon our arrival, we are told to line up alongside the other participants and receive a coconut, which we are instructed to hold with two hands underneath our chin, in a manner similar to the Thai wat greeting gesture. Suddenly, people start to smash their coconuts on the concrete road, the sweet-smelling coconut milk splashing around us. I smash my coconut on the road. Klok! I am immediately given one more coconut, which I smash, then another one, and another one. The street is a mess of people dressed in white, splashing coconut milk, and chirps of brown coconut shells whirling through the air.


When all coconuts have been smashed, Salah Kasem enters the street. Dressed in a red garb, he is carrying a small jar containing a red paste. Walking along the line of participants, he draws a vertical line from their forehead to their nose with the red paste. Upon reaching me, he laughs, and draws a red line on my forehead too. He remembers me from last week, when he gave us a guided tour of Baan Tipmanee. The house contains a vast courtyard garden, exhibition room, woodcarving workshop, sales floor, and temple rooms with woodcarvings placed throughout the space. The temple rooms feature pictures of prominent visitors, which include the king of Thailand. A huge woodcarving of Ganesh, Shiva’s son, who is half human, half elephant, is placed centrally in the courtyard on a podium. The deity carries a necklace of flower petals, and is surrounded by a wealth of sacrificial gifts; fresh fruits, flowers, food, and money bills. The other spaces of the house feature woodcarvings in various templates. There are a lot of figurines of Ganesh and of elephants. But also of the last supper of Jesus, and of the smiling, sitting Buddha, Fo, the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and the war god Guang Gong, all of which are commonly worshipped in China. In the exhibition room, these wooden figurines of deities are plastered with money bills from different countries, dominated by Chinese RMB and Thai Baht money notes. The house has a lot of Chinese buyers, who believe their donations will bring them luck. Salah Kasem then uses the donated money to finance this ritual, which he holds once a year.

The house of Baan Tipmanee constitutes a powerful node in a network of woodcarvers from Baan Tawaii and neighbouring villages. A week earlier, we had visited Baan Tawaii’s Buddhist village temple. The wooden temple is built and maintained by donations from village men with certain social positions. One local man can for instance donate a door to the temple. If he is a woodcarver, he will usually make the door by himself. Otherwise, he will hire a local woodcarver to do it. He has a certain liberty regarding the design, but it has to be fit within the overall design of the temple and its components. When woodcarvers carve and donate the temple components by themselves, they will often include their names in the carvings. But even when this is not so, local villagers will know who has donated what. This information is spread throughout the community, and is visibly encapsulated in the styles of the woodcarvings. This way, the temple and its different material components become social confluence points that gather people, while communicating masculine prestige of woodcarvers and donors throughout the village and its surrounding area.

I notice that Salah Kasem is still wearing his large ivory rings. The first time I met him, he immediately said that the rings are made from ‘waste’ ivory material, as if to emphasise his non-complicity in an illegal ivory trade. He said he wears the rings to avoid evil spirits from exiting the wood and entering his body when he is carving wood. This belief hosts a certain analogy to the ways in which Chinese people say that they wear jade jewellery in order to avoid evil forces and spirits entering their body. In both cases, the material – ivory, or jade – functions as a kind of shield blocking the human body from penetration by non-human external forces and agents. Other craftsmen in this area hold a taboo against menstruating women coming near their materials, and in some areas women are not allowed nearby the craftsmen’s workshop at all. But for Salah Kasem, the ivory rings also seem to contain a certain element of self-promotion; they have become part of his image. After all, he is not really a wood carver anymore. He buys and sells woodcarvings made by other carving masters in the area. In some cases, he lends his exhibition room to the carvings of local masters and takes a commission, when they are sold. In other cases, he selects designs and motifs from books, or takes orders on specific designs from customers, and then commissions the work to local master carvers. Salah Kasem’s real talent, it seems to me, consists in his ability to link suppliers and customers by gathering and composing different material components in the impressive frame that is the house of Baan Tipmanee, with himself as its flamboyant face, and probably his wife as the backstage organizer. When I asked about his ivory rings last week, his wife interrupted his explanation, saying that he would have worn the rings no matter whether or not he believed in them shielding him from malignant spirits residing in the wood. He laughed like a schoolboy whose boasting had been called out in the schoolyard.

picture 2

We are aligned into two lines that stretch from the street to the exhibition room inside the courtyard garden, and given a handful of flower petals. A procession walks through the two lines of people from the exhibition room towards the street. Four young women clad in dresses with inlaid gold head the procession. A guy made up as a woman and wearing a golden crown follows. Salah Kasem is the last man in the procession. As the procession walks by, we pour the flower petals over them. They turn left and stop in front of the podium with the Ganesh woodcarving. We follow. People sit down on a red carpet with their legs pointing backwards. It seems that the prohibition against pointing your feet at Buddhist figurines or monks also extends to non-Buddhist figurines. A single red cotton string is unfolded among the audience, who holds the string between their hands, which they form in a wat gesture underneath their chin. The string thus ties all participants together. Salah Kaseem has hired a ritual specialist from neighbouring village, who starts chanting in a microphone. The chanting continues for a very long time. Occasionally, an orchestra joins the chanting. The instruments – wooden xylophones, gongs and drums – and the rhythm remind me of Gamelan-orchestras I have seen in Bali. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the ritual contains several elements of Hinduism, most notably of course the worship of Ganesh. Much more so than in Southern Thailand, Ganesh is an omnipresent figure of worship throughout this region. On his part, Salah Kasem says that Ganesh is the God for craftsmen, as well as for businessmen and for money.

The chanting voice continues, when the orchestra finishes. It just keeps going. The only words I get are “Baan Tipmanee” and “Salah Kasem”, who seem to be praised for arranging the ritual. We have been sitting like this for two hours, and as my legs hurt. Even Carla, a seasoned yoga practitioner, is struggling. We finally give up, and go outside the temple garden to the street, where tables and chairs have been arranged, and food is distributed from large cooking pots. Salah Kaseem is the sponsor. People have come from Baan Tawaii, neighbouring villages, Chiang Mai, and even some Chinese visitors are here. Salah Kaseem says the Chinese participants have been there earlier to buy woodcarvings and have donated money to the woodcarvings inside the exhibition room.

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

A few weeks later, I go back to Baan Tipmanee, where Salah Kaseem is organizing another ritual. But this time, the participants are restricted to the staff of the house and some local carving suppliers. Food is served for everybody, and there is music. Three silver-grey Nissan pick-ups and a large blue truck have been elaborately decorated with flowers, and red and white fabric. The blue truck carries three woodcarvings of Ganesh sitting on wooden podiums. The two pick-up trucks in the back carry neatly organized flower bouquets and piles of coconut, pineapple, papaya, apple, and watermelon. The pick-up truck in front carries sacrifices, which are set on small trees. Most prominent is the money tree, the branches of which hold money bills on sticks ornamented as flowers. Unlike the wood carvings of Fo, Guanying and Guang Gong inside the exhibition room that are stuck with Chinese money bills, there are only Thai Baht bills on the money trees; green 20 Baht below, and the red 100 Baht on the top of the tree. Next to the money trees are small trees with other sacrificial gifts hanging from the branches. These gifts span an impressive range, including toothpaste, a comb, instant noodles, fish oil, salt, sugar, dried chilli, a notebook, sewing thread, incense, washing detergent, garlic, and talcum powder. The four trucks will drive to a temple in a nearby village to donate the sacrifices as a gift from the house of Baan Tipmanee. It is a Buddhist temple, but it does not seem to be a problem to be arriving there in a procession dominated by Ganesh figurines. Here, Salah Kaseem will give back some of the wealth he has attracted to the house of Baan Tipmanee with the help of Ganesh, and he will pray for luck in the coming year for his house, as well as for the craftsmen supplying him with wood carvings.

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations


A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

The two different ritual events seem to support two kinds of cycles. The first cycle ties together carvers, traders, and buyers through the medium of several different monetary currencies. People donate money to the carved wooden figurines that include Jesus, the Fo, Guanyin, Guang Gong commonly worshipped in China, and, most prominently, the Hindu God Ganesh. The monetary donations in the exhibition room manifest the belief in the ability of Ganesh in bringing luck in craftsmanship and in business. The money laid on the woodcarvings includes a variety of bills, including US Dollar, alongside various European, and Asian currencies. But the dominant currencies are Chinese RMB, and Thai Baht, reflecting the largest national bases of customers and worshippers. Salah Kaseem then collects the money bills and uses them to finance the annual Ganesh ritual, which – also quite literally through the string – ties together different people. Seemingly an eclectic gathering of different religious, material, and monetary components, the ritual conjures the local community, while contributing in increasing Salah Kaseem’s prestige and business. This business, in turn, provides an income for woodcarving houses – usually comprised of a master carver and a handful of apprentices – in the region.

The second ritual held a few weeks later constitutes a cycle that is narrower in terms of its social and monetary diversity, but seemingly wider in terms of its temporal extension. The participants are restricted to the employees and core suppliers of carvings of the house of Baan Tipmanee. In the first cycle, money donated by customers is spent on food, decorations, music, and the chanting priest in a singular event of consumption. In the second cycle, money earned through market transactions of woodcarvings are injected into a wider temporal order by being donated to a Buddhist temple, and thus contributes in maintaining throughout time a wider religious order through the temple. In that sense, currencies from donations and market transactions are converted into ritual and market spheres in different ways and temporal stages.

Salah Kaseem himself appears as the confluence point that ties together different social and business relations, masculine prestige, religious components, and flows of woodcarvings and money. Furthermore, in diverting flows between different monetary and religious orders, Salah Kassem upholds money and religion as mutually constituting, rather than mutually exclusive conceptual and effectual orders.

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller
Henrik can be contacted on Email:

Japan’s ideal and less ideal victims

The brutal murders of Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of ISIS have understandably captured the interest of the Japanese nation. Opinions on the victims have ranged from the deeply sympathetic to the victim-blaming. Moreover the Japanese public seems more willing to embrace Goto as a true victim than Yukawa. These domestic sentiments are important because they touch upon a question that is inherent in every crime: why are some people given victim status and others not?

Yukawa and Goto both suffered the same tragic fate, but the domestic reactions to the hostage crisis have made it clear that similar fates do not necessarily warrant similar victim status. Goto has been described as a brave and kind-hearted person on a journalistic mission to tell the truth about the Syrian war. For a while an “I am Kenji” campaign was even gaining momentum on the internet. There was little or no doubt about Goto’s status as a legitimate victim. Yukawa, on the other hand, was viewed with much more skepticism, not to say disdain. Yukawa was characterized in Japanese media as a confused loner with a death wish, who had gone to Syria as a military contractor in order to restore meaning in his life. Although few said it aloud, many Japanese probably felt that Yukawa had taken unnecessary risks and to a certain extent “had it coming”. Needless to say, no one “was” Haruna.

The denial of victimhood in Yukawa’s case has an ugly precedent. In April 2004 five Japanese who had been abducted in Iraq while doing media and voluntary work were released and allowed to return to Japan after suffering through horrendous threats of being burned alive by their Islamist captors. However upon their return they were met by angry protestors at the airport wielding contemptuous hand-written signs, one reading “you got what you deserve!” The Japanese government even demanded that the returnees pay the 6000 USD air fare. Most of the victim bashing emphasized that, by venturing into Iraq despite governmental warnings against doing so, the victims had failed to take ‘self-responsibility’.

It might not come as a surprise that circumstances apart from the actions of the perpetrators determine whether or not victim status is granted, but is it possible to say something more specific about what these circumstances are?

In order to answer that question it is useful to look at the case of Megumi Yokota, arguably one of the most famous and undisputed victims in Japanese history.

Yokota gained nationwide and eventually worldwide fame in 2002 when late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il admitted to a Japanese Prime Ministerial delegation that Yokota was one of 13 Japanese citizens whom North Korea had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Megumi Yokota, or just Megumi as she is frequently referred to in otherwise formal Japan, had been only 13 years old when she was kidnapped at the shores of Niigata in 1978. The purpose of the abduction had been to have her teach North Korean spies how to “become Japanese” so that they could infiltrate Japan undetected. Moreover North Korea claimed that she had committed suicide in 1994 – a claim that the Japanese government still denies.

Megumi’s tragic story captivated the Japanese public and she quickly became the poster child of the Japanese government’s various enlightenment campaigns aimed at solving what became known as the North Korean abduction issue. Mangas and animes carrying her name and depicting her life story became popular, and Noel Paul Stookey of the American folk band Peter Paul and Mary wrote the ballad “Song for Megumi” which he performed at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office. Furthermore, Megumi’s parents became household names as the front figures of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

But why did Megumi, and not the other abductees, become the rallying point of the various abduction issue campaigns?

The answer is because she was an “ideal victim”.

Criminologist Nils Christie has argued that in most criminal cases the victim isn’t completely blameless and the offender isn’t completely culpable. However the closer one gets to these extremes the more likely it is that the injured party will be given “the complete and legitimate status of being a victim”. This is what he calls the “ideal victim”. Christie developed five criteria for the ideal victim. As we shall see, Christie’s criteria are perfectly fulfilled by Megumi Yokota.

1)      “The victim is weak. Sick, old or very young people are particularly well suited as ideal victims”. – Megumi was 13 years old at the time of her abduction. By far the youngest of all the abductees.

2)      “The victim was carrying out a respectable project”. – Megumi was on her way back home from badminton practice.

3)      “She was where she could not possibly be blamed for being”. – Megumi was walking the same path as always.

4)      “The offender was big and bad”. – The offenders were adult North Korean spies who had illegally entered Japan by boat.

5)      “The offender was unknown and in no personal relationship to her”. – See above.

Megumi is the living (hopefully) incarnation of the ideal victim. Her symbolic power has unquestionably contributed to the fact that the abduction issue has captured far more interest among the Japanese public than conventional security issues like the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Going back to the case of ISIS victims Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, one can argue that the only thing that substantially separates them is the second condition – “carrying out a respectable project”. It is hard to find fault with a journalist who goes to Syria reporting on the suffering of ordinary people in what is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. Going to said crisis as a military contractor, however, is not likely seen as a “respectable project” in Japan, where anti-militarist sentiments have been strong since the end of WW2.

It is harder to say why Goto was perceived more favorably than the 2004 Iraq hostages, who also arguably were carrying out “respectable projects”. Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that Goto died and the Iraq hostages survived. However it is also possible that Goto’s legitimate victimhood was secured because his death followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which spurred a tremendous celebration of freedom of speech, and Goto was, after all, a symbol of free speech.

There are of course no absolute laws of human behavior, but there seems to be a general correlation between victim status and points scored on Christie’s criteria list. This probably stems from our human disposition to simplify an extremely complex world. We constantly seek simplicity, and simplicity is often found in dichotomies such as good/bad and innocent/guilty. But in order judge about innocence and guilt, we need criteria, and Christies’ criteria are probably the closest we can get to saying something general about the construction of victim status.

It is, however, important that we do not let an imperfect victim status overshadow or justify the actions of the perpetrator, as sometimes has been the case in Japan. Beheadings and abductions are not justifiable.


Ulv Hanssen

Ph.D. candidate in Japanese studies at Free University Berlin’s Graduate School of East Asia Studies (GEAS).


Report from the streets of Bangkok

For safety reasons I am omitting my name from this account. My apologies.

I was in my house, when I heard. A friend messaged me, urging me to turn on the television, and so I did. All channels showed the same thing: Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a total takeover of the country, Thailand was experiencing it’s 12th coup. A stream of announcements ensued over the next couple of hours.

This was Thursday May 22. I work in the media, so I rushed to the local TV-station to ensure I was there, before the now imposed curfew kicked in at 10 pm. A lot of other people had the same thought – everybody needed to be wherever they were going to sleep before 10, so the traffic was heavy and hectic.

I spent the night at the TV-station, occasionally being called up by journalists at home to give an update on the situation. I left for home in the early morning hours. I did go out during curfew hours, though, just a little bit. I wasn’t the only one – a few cars were cruising the otherwise empty streets. I said hello to a couple of confused tourists. But apart from that, about 11 pm in busy, buzzing Bangkok, the streets looked like this:

Bangkok 1

The next morning, it really sank in. The country was now military run, and in the daylight, a few reflections and reactions started to seep out. Cautious ones, though, due to the new, extensive censorship on media. One reporter of the English-language Bangkok-paper, The Nation, was really outspoken and critical. He used Twitter to express his anger over the sudden censorship and the coup in general.

I spent the day out and about in Bangkok. Most of the city looked normal, even more normal than it has looked for a while because the military cleared the protesters that have been camping out in the streets of Bangkok since November 2013.They’ve had a lot of demands and a specific political agenda, and has had stages and roadblocks in Bangkok for the good part of a year by now. I won’t go into that.

Up in the northern part of town, a small group of anti-coup protesters – maybe 200 – were defying the newly-imposed ban on gathering more than five people. So even though the soldiers were not present in most of the city, they were present up there: several stand-offs and minor scuffles during Friday, but luckily, nobody was hurt.

On Saturday, two days after the coup, a lot happened. A continued stream of different announcements – mainly announcing lists of people who were to report to the military – was on television all day. Late that evening, the military dissolved the Senate, and removed a not unsubstantial amount of public servants, amongst them the Chief of National Police. I started to worry, because many of the listed people, who were to report to the military, were academics and activists and journalists – critical civilians, in other words. It was not long after that the outspoken journalist from The Nation, the one who had been very critical on Twitter, was called in to report to the military.

So I think, by Sunday, the situation had become significantly more serious. Reports of large numbers of people being detained and transferred to unknown destinations were coming in now. A statement from the military declared that democracy in Thailand had “caused losses”, leaving us speculating if that meant they were not prone to re-establish democracy? The Nation’s journalist reported to military, as he was told, and it looked like this:

Bangkok 2

This picture floated social media yesterday. Unknown credit.

I heard that protesters were gathering again next to Victory Monument in Bangkok, and I decided to go up there. Overnight, the protest had grown in size – far more than 200 people were there now. I would estimate at least 1000, but it’s just a guess. Just when I arrived, I saw a lot of people running towards the soldiers that was blocking the street:

Bangkok 3

Upon reaching the ranks, people started shouting at the soldiers. (Who in many cases are young boys, and not necessarily happy with the task they are doing.) It was tense for a little while, especially when some people started throwing bananas at the soldiers.

Bangkok 4
But the situation seemed to diffuse, like it has done many times before. These scuffles happen regularly, because tensions are high. Anyway, the police were able to calm down the protesters, and the army was ordered to pull back, which they did:

Bangkok 5

After that, the anti-coup protesters decided to dissolve and meet again the next day. On my way home I heard that the Nation-journalist had been taken into custody and transferred to an unknown location. Noone has been in contact with him since that picture was taken Sunday morning, as of this writing.

The official explanation for the coup is to keep the peace. The military says it over and over – this extreme measure is to restore and keep the peace. I have a feeling that the new military leadership of Thailand has a very different definition the word “peace” than I do.


The author of the article has chosen to be anonymous, but is known to the In Focus editors.

Pictures are by the author, if not otherwise stated.


The Creeping Coup

Thailand has an impressive track-record in the department of political coups. There has, in the country’s democratic history (since 1932) been 18 more or less successful coups in Thailand.

For this reason, whenever there is political instability, Thai media and followers of Thai politics very quickly start using the word “coup”. Will there be a coup? Will the military stage a coup?

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo:

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo:

With the current situation in Thailand, we certainly have all the components:

An angry mob in the streets – since November 2013, anti-government protesters have camped out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding that the government step down and the entire system be reformed. That could cause a coup.

A political divide –the current government and the opposition does not agree even on the basic democratic framework. The current government aims for elections – the opposition will actively obstruct any attempt to hold an election, unless there is a reform first.  That too could cause a coup.

And lastly there is an all-round disrespect for the citizens and their right to co-decide what happens to their own country. What happens on the political scene today in Thailand is entirely a power struggle in between opposing elites. Top dog power struggles are the main ingredient in coups.

But despite all the political factors lining up we won’t have a classic coup in Thailand. Not this time.

What we MAY witness in Thailand right now is a whole new category: The Creeping Coup.

The Creeping Coup is a waiting game. Man, it’s slow!

It started all the way back in November 2013, when anti-government protesters started gathering in the streets of Bangkok, demanding the government step down. The protesters turned out to be surprisingly loud and stubborn – they put up roadblocks, built stages, erected tents everywhere, effectively shutting down most of central Bangkok.

With a capital that was largely ungovernable, and – it seemed – a never-ending stream of critical protesters pouring in from the south of Thailand, the Yingluck-government caved in and stepped down.

But it was already slowly becoming increasingly clear that that wasn’t the only thing the protesters – now formed into a form of political movement named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – wanted. They wanted their reform. So they stayed in the streets. And the government, excuse me, now the caretaker government, also stayed. For the next four months.

As the months went by, the numbers of the protesters dwindled. Now left with just a couple of small road-blocks, and an occupied park, the Creeping Coup went into the next phase:

In an impressive display of If-You-Can’t-Beat-Them-Join-Them, the opposition movement now started to use the very same system, they want reformed, to obtain their reform:

They started hurling lawsuits at the government. Lots of them.

The most substantial of those was the accusation of corruption within the government rice-scheme, a failed attempt to rake in additional foreign money by tampering with the global rice market. The National Anti-Corruption Committee just recently decided to impeach Yingluck Shinawatra over the issue, and the Senate will conduct thorough investigations on this matter.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session 'Women as the Way Forward' at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session ‘Women as the Way Forward’ at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum


Another recent one is the transfer of the chief of the National Security Council in 2011, Thawil Pliensri. A unanimous Constitutional Court voted caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of looking out for her own interests, when she gave the nod to the transfer, and that’s unconstitutional. She and nine ministers were ousted from government completely over the Thawil-case.

But the thing is, though, that Thailand’s different authorities are not all that impartial. The Constitutional Court, the Senate, the National Anti-Corruption Committee – these institutions are as much political players as the parties themselves are, but with the exception that they have juridical authority.

As of this writing, Thailand does not have an official government. Ten ministers, including the former Prime, have been ousted from their seats, there is no certainty how the next government will be put in place, Bangkok still has frequent mass-demonstrations AND the anti-government protesters still camp out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding their reform.

So there it is. Bit by bit, lawsuit by lawsuit, demonstration by demonstration, verdict by verdict, until there is no other way: The Creeping Coup.

Anya Palm, free-lance journalist based in Bangkok and NIAS Associate.

Being a tourist in Myanmar

By Kristina Jönsson, Associate Professor
Department of Political Science, Lund University

The political changes currently seen in Myanmar (former Burma) were for most observers unthinkable only a few years ago. I am not a specialist on Burmese politics, but have over the years followed the developments in the country from a regional perspective in relation to the neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, countries I have studied more closely.

Recently I travelled in Myanmar for three weeks, not as a researcher but as a tourist on an organised trip. Although I spent my time doing touristic activities, enjoying the beautiful country and friendly people, I could not help making a few observations based on my academic background.

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

I was not certain what to anticipate, but my impression of the country was more positive than I thought it would be – probably because of all the negative publicity over the years. Practicalities did overall work better than expected during the tour, and my impression was that Myanmar is a country with great potentials to develop rapidly under the right circumstances. Yangon with its bustling atmosphere reminded me of Thailand, the tourist spots made me think of Cambodia and the countryside of Laos.

However, the pace of change varies. To mention a few examples, modern materialism, such as cars and smart phones have been made affordable to the non-elite after years of exorbitant prices. ATMs and the use of credit cards are spreading as international business and tourism expand. These changes co-exist with the widespread use of traditional longyies. It is impossible for foreigners to use their cell phones with a foreign subscription. Also, most of the country has yet to get electricity and the indicators for health and education are among the worst in the region.

Still, the political development is the most noteworthy change. The control over media has relaxed and political prisoners are released en masse. The by-election in 2012 was a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of the parliament. President Thein Sein has even indicated support of changing the constitution in order for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for presidency (which is currently impossible because of her marriage to a foreigner).

Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, the national hero General Aung San, are highly present in everyday life through pictures and calendars, both in Yangon and in the countryside. We saw many NLD offices in the villages but only a few bureaus of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In general, the support of the opposition seemed widespread except where the army has its bases (e.g. close to conflict areas).

Party office of National League for Democracy

Party office of National League for Democracy

The outcome of the 2015 election will be an important indicator of the real political changes. What will happen if NLD wins a landslide victory as in 1990? Will the result be accepted or will there be a backlash? Are current political changes a serious attempt to democratise the country, or just a survival strategy for the regime to achieve ‘performance legitimacy’? The top-priority of the regime is clearly stability, and what we can see so far is a strictly controlled top-down transformation. This has been going on since 2003 by implementing the seven-step roadmap towards the establishment of a ‘disciplined democracy’, including a new constitution and elections.

Many issues threaten a positive development. For instance, the issue of ethnic conflicts is still unsolved, the drug trade is apparently increasing, and communal strife between Buddhist and Muslims is increasingly violent – amply illustrated by the persecution of the Rohingyas. And even if the ‘freedom of press’ has improved, journalists have recently been arrested and there are reports of the army assaulting civilians.

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Moreover, there is an emerging symbiosis between business and the state, supporting crony capitalism and corruption empowering a narrow oligarchy, not the least in the borderlands. Besides the extraction of natural resources, the tourist sector is booming. Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake may have difficulties coping with the influx of foreign visitors, but the prices for hotel rooms etc. are increasing, enabling lucrative business. Ordinary citizens may benefit from this development, although it is probably the elite, the army included, who make the largest profit.

The development in Myanmar may not be unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have experienced similar development trajectories. Some draw parallels to Indonesia due to historical similarities. Others make comparisons to Cambodia, where external pressure led to the introduction of democratic institutions without significantly altering the political-economic powers structures under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Another issue is the effects of the political changes in Myanmar regarding regional dynamics. Myanmar used to be ‘worst in class’, but now the regime gets international praise and heads of states have been queuing for audience with President Thein Sein. From 2014 Myanmar even holds the chair of ASEAN. This development indirectly puts pressure on countries like Laos and Vietnam to introduce political reforms.

So, what are the ‘pros’ of being a tourist on an organised tour? You see a lot of the country (even if some areas are not accessible because of opium cultivation and armed conflict), you do not have to apply for permits (the guide takes care of that), and you experience comfortable hotels as well as unpretentious home-stays.

Tourist spot Bagan

Tourist spot Bagan

But perhaps this is also the ‘cons’ of being a tourist. You have a pleasant experience, but only see changes on the surface in parts of the country where people gradually are improving their lives. Those with lesser means probably will have to wait a long time for a better life, while others with the right connections rapidly can further their wealth.

Sources and further reading:

Croissant, Aurel & Kamerling, Jil (2013) Why Do Military Regimes Institutionalize? Constitution-making and Elections as Political Survival Strategy in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 21(2): 105-125

Holliday, Ian (2010) Ethnicity and Democratization in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 18(2): 111-128.

Jones, Lee (2013) The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44(1): 144-170.

Jones, Lee (2014) Explaining Myanmar’s regime transition: the periphery is central, Democratization, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.863878. Published online 28 Jan 2014.

Renshaw, Catherine Shanahan (2013) Democratic Transformation and Regional Institutions: The Case of Myanmar and ASEAN, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 32(1): 29–54.

Rieffel, Lex (2012), Myanmar on the Move: An Overview of Recent Developments, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(4): 31-49.

Taylor, Robert H. (2012) Myanmar: From Army Rule to Constitutional Rule? Asian Affairs, 43(2): 221-236.

Taylor, Robert H. (2013) Myanmar’s ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’, Asian Affairs, 44(3): 392-400.

Farming is Ugly: Reform, Friction and Bishan Commune

From 2014, Anhui Province will pilot a reform of the residential land market in China, thus integrating rural Anhui in the national housing market. On the opposite note, artist and activist Ou Ning has proposed the Bishan time money currency, intending to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan Village.


Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.


Bishan Village, Yi County, Anhui Province

At first sight, Bishan village doesn’t come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good, the small county seat is only 15 min away on electric scooter, the preferred vehicle of most villagers, and the county seat can boast of a new hospital, a new school, rows of new townhouses and apartment blocks, construction sites and smaller factories. There are similarly plenty of newly build houses in Bishan. Nevertheless, the wealth represented by these new houses, does not come from the local economy, but is almost entirely based on young people going to the city to work, sending money home, building houses they do not themselves reside in. Old people and small children constitute the actual population as most young people have left to work in the more developed urban areas. Furthermore, many families, who have migrated to the city, have had no legal way of selling the land they no longer reside on, leaving the village dotted with empty houses.

Yi County is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism through the past ten years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly build houses cause a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions.

In this Huizhou village on the foot of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas, countering the official line of further urbanization.


Ou Ning's house Buffalo Institute

Ou Ning’s house Buffalo Institute


A house for Bishan Commune

An old compound in traditional Hui-style in the centre of Bishan constitute the headquarters of Bishan Commune. Ou Ning bought the house in 2010 and called it Buffalo Institute. In the spring of 2013, he moved permanently to Bishan with his family (mother, younger brother, nephew, girlfriend and her son). The move indicates a significant turning point for Bishan Commune, entering a phase of action and interaction.

A constant flow of visitors, foreign and Chinese, urbanities and local villagers, pass through the house and stay for longer or shorter periods, either to work and discuss with Ou Ning, to do smaller projects like investigations of the local folk music or handicrafts, fieldwork studies of the countryside or, as many do, experience the traditional Hui-style houses in a new condition.

The house occupied by Buffalo Institute used to be the dormitory of the sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution. A story that now somehow repeats itself, albeit under very different circumstances. Buffalo Institute is a gathering space of free, independent learning and sharing and where elaborate discussions on the unfolding of Bishan Commune and the future of Bishan village continuously take place, which is also the result of Ou Ning and his family’s warm curiosity and generosity.


Informal land market

Ou Ning was not legally allowed to buy the house in 2010, so the proof of ownership still carries the name of the previous owner. In the countryside there are roughly three categories of land: farmland (collectively owned by the villagers), state owned land and residential land (the land your house is built on). Farmland can be expropriated and converted into state owned land and then sold or leased to developers and the like, but residential land can so far not be traded within the law. However, circumvention of state regulations unofficially sanctioned by local officials has created an informal residential land market in Bishan and Yi County making it possible for Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and others to purchase houses in Bishan. Due to the unofficial character of this residential land market and the consequential lack of real estate agents, it still requires good connections with the villagers to purchase a house, since you need introduction to the farmers who are willing to or can be persuaded to sell. Moreover, not many people dare to undertake the costs of buying a house without the necessary legal protection in case of expropriation or the like, further limiting the scope of this informal residential land market.

To address these issues, Anhui Province is from the beginning of next year piloting an official market for residential land in a selected number of counties (, including Yi county under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something which can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan once again.


Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official's Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official’s Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.


Farming is ugly

Ou Ning explains that it is often urban people of wealth who are able to buy the old houses and undertake the high costs of restoring them. Mrs. Liang, who has recently purchased a house in Bishan, expresses that she wants to convert the land in connection to her house into a flower garden, since “it is not pretty to look at cultivated farmland”.[1] This statement suggests a problematic attitude towards the rural cultural landscape.

If the further opening up of the housing land market implies an invasion of unscrupulous capital with no consideration for and appreciation of the existing rural cultural landscapes and practices, then Bishan might be on the path of a dangerous development, turning the village into an urban playground, designed to fulfill the ever-expanding needs of urban residents and tourists. When not properly integrating the rural residents in the decision making process, this kind of development tends to neglect the needs of the rural population by not creating any real job opportunities for often uneducated farmers and causing a fluctuation in housing prices and general living costs.

This is also an aspect where the presence of Bishan Commune in Bishan can be a significant factor. Bishan Commune and their like-minded continuously make an effort to influence newcomers to the area as well as local villagers and officials of the importance of preserving rural culture as a visible feature of Bishan and direct the development in a more sustainable direction. If they succeed, then Bishan might be able to change for the better, providing job opportunities that will allow young people the possibility to choose to stay in Bishan. The need of Bishan to develop economically is a stated priority of many of the local residents, who generally support expropriation of farming land, since it allows capital to enter. Ongoing discussions with the villagers on this subject, make the economical aspect a concern Bishan Commune have had to take into consideration. Even though they might not always agree with Bishan Commune on the terms of development, local villagers and officials show great support for the initiative.


The common space at Han Yu's Pig's Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

The common space at Han Yu’s Pig’s Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.


Alternative economic circuit

As a means to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan, Ou Ning recently proposed the Bishan time money currency, where smaller tasks such as housekeeping at the local guesthouse Pig’s Inn or helping in the fields of Young Village Officials Garden, can be exchanged for a meal at the local hotel Tailai, books at the soon-to-open branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, or second hand artifacts donated to the shop Ou Ning will open at Buffalo Institute and so forth. All the Bishan time money members listed above agree to this system of exchange. Even though the system valorize labour in a manner maybe not entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s  concept of “mutual aid” advocated by Ou Ning and maybe won’t bring any direct job opportunities, it still provides an important alternative to the existing model and manages to incorporate the villagers’ concerns for some sort of economic possibilities. Furthermore, Bishan Commune can be an important marker of identification and will give Bishan a special standing in relation to the neighboring villages, providing that “something different”, which will be important when attracting the right kind of “caring” capital to the village.

The Bishan time money has yet to be put into effect, but Ou Ning expects it to be set in motion sometime around next spring. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the Bishan time money, is how the villagers will embrace this new system, if they will make it their own, thus creating the possibility of this alternative currency to exceed the core members and entering the village society as a whole. When asked whether Ou Ning has discussed making an independent monetary system in Bishan with the local officials, he answers: This I do first, and then I ask.

The coming years will show, how the presence of Bishan Commune in the village and the introduction of Bishan Time money combined with a reformed residential land market will affect Bishan and which direction the development will take. But to answer the question Tom Cliff asked in his introductory article on Bishan Commune: Is intention sufficient? I think it is safe to answer, that with this kind of project intention can never be sufficient. But intention is an important trigger for agency, and in Bishan Commune’s case it is an agency that is constantly reinvented and renegotiated in collaboration with local actors, thus aiming at creating new spaces of possibilities in Bishan and beyond.

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, China Studies. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Artists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.

[1] Informal conversation with Mrs. Liang, Yixian, October and November 2013.

The dice that always land on red

About a week ago, Thailand’s capital Bangkok, saw the largest demonstrations since the political turmoil that gripped the country in 2010. Back then, supporters of Thailand’s exiled former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, took the streets. That didn’t end well – when the smoke cleared after the demonstrations, 92 people had lost their lives and over 1000 people were badly wounded. So in these past few weeks, fear of repetition of the black days in spring 2010 has had the city on needles.  

Tuesday last week, police where hurling gas canisters at protesters to stop them from entering the Government House by force. But then everything very suddenly stopped: Thursday was the King’s Birthday, and the fighting parties decided to hold a truce out of respect for the King. 24 hours later, police were receiving flowers and hugs from the very same protesters they just fought and peace befell the city for a little while.


After a short intermission celebrating the King’s Birthday together, Bangkok is now gearing up for a second round of demonstrations.

Demonstration leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has repeatedly set several deadlines for toppling the government over the course of two weeks now, and calls for Monday to be “do or die” – the Big Battle day. Monday is the day where the protesters once and for all seize control of the Government House and bring down the redshirt-movement, current Prime Minister Yingluck, big brother Thaksin, the government and everyone else affiliated with the powerful siblings.

And once again, the tension rises and the police take their place on street corners and in formations protecting government offices.  With five dead and 200 hurt last week, there is very valid concern of how things may play out now.

But actually that’s not what we need to be concerned about. There is little to do about that, other than keep calm and hope that everyone else does the same.

What we need to be concerned about is this:

There is in Thailand an elite of people with strong conservative, feudalistic values. They are high up, and they are powerful. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is one of them. The arch-enemies of the red-shirts – the yellow shirts – are also part of this elite. Several influential families. Parts of the Thai military, generals, decision makers, business leaders. All of them ready to fight for a complete break-down of the current system to rid it of the Shinawatra influence. Those are the people that are represented by 100.000 protesters marching around in Bangkok, taking over government offices these days.

Thaksin Shinawatra, on his side, is the leader of a movement, which has enormous power in Thailand due to a die-hard loyalty from red voters, particularly rural farmers from the North. At the same time, however, he is supported by enough money to keep voters happy and his affiliations are a spider’s web of powerful people reaching very far into the core of the system. Thaksin – or one of his affiliates – have won every single election they’ve ever participated in. If there was to be another election after these protests…they would win it once again. In short: Thaksin has effectively hijacked democracy in Thailand – he and his redshirts not afraid to put any disagreements to the vote, because they will always win.

This is what the protesters are trying to put a stop to, which is arguably a valid point. There is one problem, though: The alternative they present is even worse:

Their point is this: Because of the poor track record of voting in people who are corrupt (and always affiliated with Thaksin), the anti-government protesters argue that voting has to be suspended altogether. The electing must instead be taken care of by other means until the masses are educated enough to they know what they are doing. A minority with “higher moral standards” – presumably appointed by the King – must take care of governing the country instead.

Yup. That’s what the protesters in the street are out there fighting for. And with that fairly extreme stance, the options of what will happen next limit themselves to these three:

  1. If the government survives the current squatters’ siege, an administration with an eerily tight grip on majority – and a habit of taking corruption to a whole new level – will stay in seat.
  2. If there is an election, they will get re-elected.
  3. If the anti-protesters manage to take over, the country will then be led by an elite whose disregard for common people is so monumental they genuinely believe people are too stupid to vote.

Regardless of where the democratic dices land in Thailand this time, one thing is certain: All of these options lead to deeper divide in the nation. The split in between the redshirts and the opposition is only worsening over these re-occurring seemingly endless protests, and when the demands are so far from democracy that they are borderline unconstitutional, there is very little to work with. There has been no dialogue, no resolution, no common ground within the current political turmoil, so there is not really anything to drive the process of reconciliation forward. Well – maybe there is ONE thing: The fact that the entire country just days ago together in peace listened to the King’s annual speech in which he spoke beautifully of Thailand as a united nation of peace and prosperity.

So, Happy Birthday, King. Let’s hope Suthep and other destructive hotheads listened too.


By Anya Palm

Freelance journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and NIAS Associate.




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