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.

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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.

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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: Henrik.Moller@soc.lu.se


Myanmar – a country opening up?

After 50 years of isolation Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is finally opening up to the outside world. According to the media the country is now welcoming tourists, foreign investment and development aid. But exactly what does the picture of openness look like in reality?

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Photo taken in a small village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: children curious to see what is happening at our meeting inside the monastery.

Having spent a month (restricted time period for tourist visa) collecting empirical data for a master’s thesis in Myanmar, the general picture of ‘openness’ has become more nuanced and complex. The mysterious Myanmar is a country known for a variety of reasons ranging from its beautiful landscapes decorated with golden pagodas, Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes to a repressive military rule followed by fear and poverty. As a master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication I had a desire to explore the country and to study how the development of civil society in Myanmar is influenced by the political changes in the country, and what role development organisations play in this process. This required a field visit to Myanmar.

With the help of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok a collaboration with ActionAid Myanmar was established. ActionAid Myanmar is managing two projects, amongst others, implemented by a consortium of local (and international) NGOs named the Thadar Consortium. The two projects are implemented in the Dry Zone, in the central part of Myanmar, and in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, in the southern part of Myanmar, respectively, and both projects focus on the strengthening of civil society and improvement of livelihood.

The field visit was an eye-opening experience, based on positive as well as negative surprises, and by sharing this experience I am hoping to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to do fieldwork in a country like Myanmar that has just “opened up” to the outside world. What challenges can you expect to meet when working under these circumstances?

Background

Before getting into a detailed description of my fieldwork I consider it necessary to briefly describe the country Myanmar and to highlight the most important historical and political events. In 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win and the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) changed Myanmar from being a wealthy country to a country of repression, isolation and gradually increasing poverty. From 1962 – 2010 the situation in Myanmar was characterized by a number of uprisings against the military regime. One of the most well-known uprisings was in 1988 where large groups of students took to the street and, despite continued military ruling, managed to generate the resignation of the unpopular General Ne Win. However, the uprising was violently suppressed, and a large number of students died.

Seeing her country in that stage of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San (assassinated in 1948), made her entrance into the political arena to fight for a free and democratic Myanmar. She established the political party NLD ‘National League for Democracy’, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. 1989 was also the year when the government decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which caused further anger and frustration. In 1990 an election was held and the NLD won a landslide victory, but unfortunately, the military regime refused to recognize the election results, allowing the regime to stay in power.

The second well-known uprising, named the Saffron Revolution led by monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes, took place in 2007. This event was violently suppressed and the action made the outside world aware of the critical situation in Myanmar.

Another event that attracted the attention of the outside world was when Cyclone Nargis struck and killed around 150.000 people in the southern part of Myanmar in 2008. For months NGOs were denied access to the areas.

From 2010 onwards the country started changing. In fall 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest – by this time she had been in house arrest for 15 years. A week before her release the government held a Parliamentary Election, but the NLD decided to boycott it. In 2011 a new democratic government was officially formed, with the leadership of the pro-democratic president Thein Sein, and this gave birth to a number of democratic reforms. In April 2012 the NLD won a landslide victory in a by-election, which meant that the party was now represented, although with a minority part of Parliament.

 

Fieldwork in Myanmar

 Freedom of speech

Judging by national and international media channels it appeared that Myanmar had actually opened up, allowing tourists, development aid and foreign investment to enter the country. This, however, didn’t necessarily mean that the Burmese people were ready to express their opinions on sensitive issues like politics, the military government, civil society or democracy, topics upon which my master’s thesis is based. In order to adapt to these circumstances the research and interview questions were moderated accordingly.

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 The streets of Yangon: a young nun talking on her blue smart-phone

On arrival in Yangon, and all during the two weeks spent in Yangon, the picture given by the media appeared to reflect reality. To my surprise the changes in the country were visibly and audibly reflected in the city-life in Yangon. The majority of the taxi-drivers were eagerly explaining, in well spoken English, how the new government is better than the old one, and that they believed this transition would change their lives to the better. Many had a picture of the national hero, Bogyoke Aung San in the car, indicating that they were now free to voice their opinion. Others explained how Aung San Suu Kyi had saved the country. Judging by the Burmese history the people have been suppressed and restricted for the past 50 years, particularly in regards to freedom of speech. In my opinion, this openness characterizing the people of Yangon is an indicator of the changes in the country.

The prospects of the fieldwork now appeared more promising, as open-minded people are easier to interview. Unfortunately, the hope for success faded already after the first meeting with the Thadar Consortium. The Consortium emphasised the need to be extremely cautious with sensitive issues, like the political reforms, when entering the project areas. This obviously came as a surprise to me, as I got the impression from people in Yangon that they were now free to voice their opinion.

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Village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta Region

 

Permission

Obtaining permission to enter the project areas turned out to be more challenging than expected. Through correspondences prior to the field visit to Myanmar it was decided that the empirical data should be collected in the Dry Zone project, as this project seemed more relevant for the research. However, after arrival in Yangon, the Thadar Consortium didn’t succeed in obtaining permission to visit this area. In fact, no foreigner apart from project staff had ever been granted permission to enter that area, and even local people have to apply for permission to enter. After this discovery, which also seemed to be a surprise for the Consortium, efforts were made to obtain permission to visit the Delta project. Unfortunately this did not prove successful in the first place, and after a new attempt was made for the Dry Zone (also unsuccessful), a visit to the Delta finally worked out. This process cut a week off the limited time available for fieldwork.

Based on the impression from the media that Myanmar has opened up, it came as a surprise to me, and apparently also to the project staff, that it was this difficult for foreigners to enter certain areas of the country. In fact, before leaving Denmark a Burmese friend of mine, living and working in Denmark, encouraged me to stay a couple of nights in the homes of local people, as this would give me a deeper understanding of the Burmese culture. With this encouragement in mind it was particularly surprising to discover that even local Burmese people need to apply for permission to stay at the house of a friend or relative – and foreigners shouldn’t even bother applying, as they would not get the permission. This is today’s Myanmar.

Going “undercover”

During the preparatory meetings in Yangon I was briefed by the Consortium on how to present myself and on what to be aware of when operating in the field. First of all, I could not introduce myself as a student doing research in the villages. Apparently, the word ‘research’ is extremely sensitive, as it may raise suspicion among the local authorities of interference in local affairs. Under these circumstances I was given an “undercover” title as employee from the Thadar Consortium, and the purpose of my presence in the local villages was to collect information to write the Thadar Consortium newsletter. On the one hand, this new title made it possible to travel and conduct research in the project area. However, on the other hand, these precautions may have affected the answers given by the interview persons. They considered me as part of the Thadar Consortium, placing them in a position where they did not feel free to express their true opinions, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship to the organisations supporting them. This was of course unfortunate, but without the support of the Thadar Consortium it would not have been possible to enter the villages.

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Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: poor family


Furthermore, words like “political reforms” and “democratic reforms” could not be used – not during the interviewing and not even casually. In fact, it was extremely important that the interview questions were not in any way political or critical of the former military regime. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, ActionAid as a non-political organization is emphasizing the importance of not interfering with national or local political affairs. Secondly, the local authorities do not want outsiders spreading political information, possibly for fear of local resistance or unrest. Thirdly, despite the fact that the country has opened up the villagers living in the local communities still may feel insecure when being confronted with political issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to obtain information about the changes in the country, and they therefore may have a lack of knowledge about which rules have been abolished and which still apply. For example, during the fieldwork it turned out that the term ‘civil society’ was banned until after 2008.

These restrictions made it challenging to obtain comprehensive information from the interview persons. As an alternative to the sensitive terms I used the term “change” anticipating (and hoping) it would be understood as “political changes”. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. However, despite the restrictions and different understandings of “change” it was possible, by re-phrasing the questions and thus approaching the central issues in alternative ways, to achieve satisfactory outcomes of the interviews.

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Travelling by boat to the villages in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: interpreter and interviewer taking a nap after a long day in the field.

One morning, when travelling by our usual motorised boat to one of the small villages, one of the project officers received a phone call from the police. He explained to me that he functioned as the contact person for the police in the township where we were staying, because they wanted to know our exact whereabouts every day, and they wanted to make sure that we returned from the villages before nightfall. The project officer assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Whatever the reason for their concern, I now decided to save the interviews recorded in the villages on three different digital devises – two of them located on our bodies. If the recordings of the interviews were confiscated by the police it would of course be devastating for my research, but my greatest concern was the safety of the interview persons. Later that night, when returning from having dinner at a small restaurant, our trishaw driver told us that the police were in our hotel. They were concerned because a Californian project officer, the only other foreigner in the township – and entire area, had not returned from the villages. We, on the other hand, didn’t need to worry, because the police knew where we were – having dinner at the small restaurant by the water. This constant surveillance emphasised the necessity in saving the interview recordings in a number of different places. This could have been an over-reaction, but after thus far having encountered numerous surprises in this country I was not going to take any risks.

It appears that the authorities have a need to constantly be in control by knowing the exact whereabouts of foreigners staying within their area of responsibility. Before the country started changing the NGOs, international NGOs in particular, were denied access to the rural areas. Today the situation has changed, but in my opinion it seems that the fear and need of control is still evident in the behaviour of the authorities.

The changes in Myanmar

Without doubt, Myanmar is changing. In cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, the pro-democratic president Thein Sein and his government is working to democratize the country, a political development that was unimaginable a few years ago. However, it appears that these changes are mostly evident on a national level. In the poor villages in the rural areas the changes are still tentative, and as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to get access and to operate in these areas. There is still a long way to go.

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Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: grandma smoking a cigar

Marie Ditlevsen
Master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University
Workplace student at NIAS