Social Mobility

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Clearly, station in the hierarchy improves by amassing greater resources fordistribution. In accordance with one’s reputation for generosity and managerialskill in making benefits more enduring, one’s group grows or withers.Thus to increase status, one may first, through personal diligence, accumulateresources for broader distribution. At the same time the system offers a second manner of rising, for a man of lower station often cannothope to increase his resources independently: he may offer his services toanother with resources greater than his own and redistribute the resultingbenefits among his own following. A village headman can, perhaps through his own resources, hold his kinsmen, but to hold the entire village may requirehis rendering services to the circle headman (kamnan) and perhapsalso to the district officer (naaj amphoe). The additional benefits received fromthese higher officers, for instance as work opportunities for his villagers, canbe distributed by the headman to secure his position.Among the Thai the relation endures only as long as it serves the convenienceof both parties. A superior may terminate benefits, or an inferiormay cease rendering services at his own discretion. A Thai freeman formerlysought out the advantages of rendering services, for the benefits increasedhis security. In contrast, the bottom ranks of feudal society, exceptingthe outlaws, were by and large the most tightly bound and least mobile.The absence of peasant revolts in Thai history demonstrates this difference,and freedom to contract anew helped reduce a master’s tyranny.To be sure, freedom to make and break liaisons to a superior was not always equally or immediately available, yet even slavery implied no fixedposition. All slaves might regain their freedom by payment to their masters.In the case of prisoners of war and their children the price of redemption was fixed by law in 1805. Debt slaves might repay their obligationsthrough labor and were always free to change masters by finding someoneto pay off their debt in return for their services. Free peasantsmight not in fact always have access to another superior, and the perilsof isolation might outweigh considerable abuse by some local Caligula.Yet ultimately a freeman could always escape to the forest, and the excessivelycruel master was always considered to be cutting the bough beneathhis own feet.Of course, freedom to contract anew did not obviate the use of force tosustain a liaison, and many a military expedition set out to punish a vassalwho delayed in forwarding tribute. Yet here, the right to affiliate with anotherwas not in question, rather the wisdom of attempting it. Indeed formeraffiliation with an enemy did not necessarily blight participation in a newalliance. Traitors as morally despicable figures are absent from this scene.The history of 19th century Thailand contains many incidents that canonly be understood in these terms. Cambodia and, for a brief period, theprincipality of Vientiane sent tribute both to Bangkok and to the rival Annamesepower at Hue. One of the latest of these shifts was the return of Field Marshal PibulSongkhram to the office of Prime Minister in 1948, even though he had earlierbeen accused of leading the Thai to defeat by his alliance with Japanduring World War II.Change of affiliation is not a privilege of aristocrats and statesmen but extendsas a right to all people. The young man from the country who seemedto have secured a life-long contract with his aunt and uncle subsequentlyabandoned his benefactors (see above); he said simply“About my uncle’s work, there was a controversy between my uncle and theperson who bought the bronze knives. At my uncle’s place there was lesswork; we didn’t make as many knives as usual. So I returned [home to the country].” When asked why he returned, he replied: “Because  we had to work harder and make less money.” (Phillips 1957)Even between kinsmen the obligation endured only as long as it served themutual interest.Efforts to depict social classes in Thai society founder because of misconstruingthe nature of this social order, which resembles a military organizationmore than an occidental class-type society. Like an army, Thai societyhas a hierarchy of fixed ranks which determine occupation, but one movesfreely from occupation to occupation up and down the hierarchy. The kingmight grant title to commoners as easily as a master could free his slaves.On suffering defeat, kings could become slaves with little to comfort themfor having once held power. Neither noble nor commoner had to defend hisnew status against criticism, any more than a captain reminds his newlycommissioned fellow captain that yesterday he was only a commander. Aman rises because of merit and is accepted without regard for his humbleorigin. Indeed, a humble origin implies a considerable store of merit andmight increase his prestige.2What we designate as the individual or person is more restricted in Thaithan in Western society. A Thai is a minister or a farmer only as long as heholds the station. When a farmer, he acts as a farmer, but when he receiveshis insignia of office, he discards his rustic ways. A man described his serviceas a priest under a very strict abbot who disciplined him on more thanone occasion, and who made living in this particular temple unpleasant forthe entire order. Later, when both had retired from the priesthood, the twobecame great friends. The raconteur with no trace of resentment explainedthat his friend, the former abbot, had then to act strictly but could undernew circumstances be a very warm friend. Thus one emphasizes the stationof the moment. People tend to speak of Mr. District Officer (naaj amphoe)rather than the more personal Mr. District Officer Suk. One prays for assistanceto an impersonal Lord of the Place (cao thii) rather than to a certainsainted Francis or Michael. Formerly the king in raising a person to higherrank gave him also a new name in harmony with his title. His name fromchildhood was discarded, and on retirement he would be addressed onlyby the latest and presumably most honorific of several names.By emphasis on status rather than person, the Thai equip themselves formobility and transient position. To a greater extent than in the West, the insigniatransform the person. To a lesser degree do people speak slightinglyof the “newly arrived” or seek flaws in the clothing that intends to make agentleman. Thus the uniqueness of the person, his personal identity, subserveshis position on the hierarchy.

 

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