Marriage and Opium in a Lisu Village in Northern Thailand

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When land was open access and households could always grow enoughopium to buy the rice they needed if they were not self-sufficient, the limitingfactor in the economic system was household labor. Productive laborwas organized by households, and thus by the kinship system. Recruitmentof labor occurred through marriage, and so households competed to getyoung people married early and to get the newlyweds to live with them. In addition, young couples could very quickly repay their “debt” to those whohad paid the bridewealth that allowed them to get married; they went on toestablish “repute-full” autonomous households.This avenue to repute was now largely gone. Productive labor of youngwomen was not the key to household wealth. Rather, households focused onmaintaining their patrilineal land and allocating scarce resources to trucks,motorbikes, education, new cash crops, and chemical inputs (fertilizer, pesticide)for those crops. Without wealth to pay bridewealth, marriage occurredlater; young women sought young men who would be able to bring theminto the boys’ patrilineage and use their land. And so, young Lisu womenlost their repute. Marriage was a key node, the locus at which these changeswere worked out. The mechanism by which social structure was transformedwas in marriage strategies.Over time, Alema was under pressure to go to work in a lowland town.Her father’s sister lived in a tourist town; Alema had told me before thatthis family was “rich” because they did not have to work in the fields and,in fact, did not even have agricultural land. But Alema resisted her father’srequest. Her middle-class Thai teachers at the government boarding schoolof “hill tribe” children had warned her that working in town was a surepath to sex work. When I left the village, she had told her father she wouldnot go. But as opportunities for marriage looked progressively bleaker, makingsome kind of contribution to her father’s household through work in thelowlands looked all the more appealing. She would make her own choice,but it would be within the structural constraints of political and economiclife in northern Thailand.

 

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