Recording Traditions and Measuring Progress in the Ethnic Minority Highlands of Thailand
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It was clear that government interventions in highland farming had made local livelihood rather precarious by the time of my first fieldwork with the Mien people of Thailand in 1992–1994.1 Shifting cultivation had been outlawed for decades, and the bulk of highland ethnic minority peoples hadn’t been granted citizenship, the legal prerequisite for owning land. Occasionally whole settlements were evicted, and in some places people’s fields were overtaken by lowland farmers with better connections to government officials. Sometimes I asked Mien people why they did not attempt to move across the border to Laos, where I assumed government intervention informer livelihood was limited. The most common answer to this query was that there was “no progress” there. Progress implied roads, markets, schools, health care, and the like, the local measure of modernity and well-being. To hear from older people that “progress” (Thai, khan jaroen, often used interchangeably with khan phatthana, “development”) made their livelihood difficulties bearable was puzzling. Older people who talked with me also made this contrast with life in the past, the 1960s of ethnographies I had reading preparation for my own fieldwork. This was another puzzle to me, possibly because at the time I still thought there were hill tribes, ethnic groups with distinct cultures, in which older people (at least) were nostalgic for the social and cultural frameworks of their pasts. But they were not nostalgic. I was well versed in the earlier ethnography of the area and its peoples. I expected traditional shifting cultivators with specific forms of kinship and ritual that reinforced ethnic identities. My expectations did not include the successful insertion of the Thai ideology of modernity into the fabric of everyday life among the Mien, through schools, media (newspapers, radio, and television), and meetings. This ideology wed nation (Thai) and modernity(progress) partly through presenting the image of “unreformed” hill tribe peoples as a source of Thailand’s problems. If I could not easily cling to notions of ethnic culture to account for local social life, should I anchor my findings to national politics and ideology instead? But to think about Mien life today as merely a set of opposing orientations of “past/tribal” and “Thai/modern/state” is restrictive. There are multiple intertwinings of culture and politics, of the local and the national. Tochase after these, I will relate some of my steps toward an understanding of Mien life, with a description of vignettes of Mien enactments of culture and identity in various settings.

 

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