Democracy and Kinship

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“They don’t like to grow rice, so they look for work in towns and also abroad,» said Dr. Chob Kacha-Ananda. He was an expert on the Mien at Thailand’s Tribal Research Institute (TRI), an arm of the government’s administration. In October 1992, Chub had kindly invited me to join his team on their tripto document a Mien wedding in the village of Rom Yen, near the town ofChiangkham in Phayao province. This seemed a good opportunity to visit some villages to find a field site for my research. Rom Yen village is a five-hour drive from the city of Chainman, the administrative center of northern Thailand, where I was then based and where the TRI is located. On our way to Rom Yen, we first went to the Mien village of Pangkha, where we spent the night. Chob told me that the Royal Forestry Department of the Thai government planned to evict six villages from the Pangkha region in the interest of forest protection, and that the villages had purportedly agreed to move. One of the six would most likely be allowed to stay, headed, since the king’s mother (the Princess Mother, Mae Fa Luang) had donated large school to the people there. According to Chob, this was the village of Pangphrik, where people “don’t like to grow rice.” The Pangphrik school was run by Thailand’s Border Patrol Police (BPP). It was a remainder and reminder of a war of Thai military and mercenary forces (with American support) against the Communist Party of Thailand and its sympathizers. During the 1960s and 1970s, ethnic minority highlanders were viewed as holding uncertain political allegiance at best, and as communists at worst; active fighting lasted until 1982. A decade later, the BPP was still involved in instilling a sense of national belonging and indebtedness among Mienand Hmong ethnic minority peoples. Their mission was equally to guard the borders of nationhood and the physical terrain. While Chob described the planned eviction of settlements as a matter of fact that was of little concern, he became quite animated when describing his vision for democracy in Mien villages. He said that there was much clan favoritism in traditional village life, as members of a single clan (lineage, kin group) could largely run the affairs of a village. Chob had suggested that the village committee have representatives from each of the clans present, and more than one representative if the clan had more than five households in the village. He advocated this scheme to the villagers, many of whom whereto be evicted. What Chub described as clan favoritism was, from his perspective, an undemocratic practice. His concern was to introduce his idealized model of democracy into the dynamics of Mien villages. In this imagery, a clan waste equivalent of an interest group seeking to monopolize resources, anchor’s democratic intervention consisted of a mechanism for making access to state resources proportionate to the presence and relative strength of each interest group, in order to distribute such resources more evenly. Thai national political trends thus facilitated a particular understanding of Mien political practices as favoritism, corrupt practices that were once common in Thai social life but were now, it was assumed, fast disappearing because oaf wave of democratic reform. In other words, the modern democratic future presumably would erase the undemocratic past. Modernity would happen a process of change from an undesirable condition to a desirable one. Mien kinship is matrilineal, but while there are identifiable lineages these had not (in my experience) emerged as separate interest groups. Conventions about lineage exogamy and status rivalries among relatives made local politics more complex than mere interest groups. And contrary to the Thai anthropologist’s understanding, there were at the time no public resources to compete over or monopolize highland villages. The envisioned changes were basically an attempt to align these local dynamics with the national structure of control. If successful, they might in fact establish what they were supposed to counter: kinship groups as separate political units. The site for these intended reforms among the Mien was the locally elected village committee; an institution mandated by national law and created in Mien villages in line with the state’s modernizing agenda for the countryside. A mobile development worker, a Thai man, had arrived in Rom Yenta oversee the elections. This and various other aspects of the modern state and nation linked Mien villages to larger social fields, assuming a binary opposition between tradition and modernity. But such terms had no fixed meaning. They shifted in relation to the ways in which people used these concepts in their lives.

 

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