Prospecting for Collective Identity

«Необязательно видеть весь путь.
Просто поверьте и сделайте первый шаг». Мартин Лютер Кинг

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More significantly, Mien people formed an ethnic-group association that sought to articulate their identity in relation to culture and development. That is, Mien people appeared to seek to combine tradition and modernity’s they fashioned themselves in relation to the nation. The dynamics appeared contradictory in the effort to emphasize the local and traditional Mien entanglements with aspects of state control and the regulation of identity and social life. Just a few days after the wedding in Rom Yen, I was in the village of Pangkhafor a meeting about Mien relations; as stated on the event’s welcome-banner, the meeting's focus was on the “development and the preservation of culture.” The main organizers took a broad view of culture and included issues of livelihood and ways of dealing with the government, along with the more commonly assumed ingredients of customs and traditional practices. The issues at the meeting ranged widely. Significantly, one of the speakers mentioned that according to Dr. Chub of the Tribal Research Institute, the Mien were the most progressive of the country’s hill tribes; they were most advanced in phatthana (development) and khwaam sa-at (cleanliness). This formulation assumed the condition of “unmodernity” (tradition) as one of filth. The dynamics of modernity invited frequent measurements of progress. Development, progress, and cleanliness as markers of modernity and modernization were thus wielded locally as a sign of the achievements of Mien people as an ethnic group in the context of other ethnic minority highland peoples. It was somehow a good sign that the state’s ethnographers found the villages of other ethnic groups filthier than those of the Mien. The statement at the Rom Yen wedding that Mien wedding customs were the most elaborate among all the hill tribes was a variation on this pattern. A range of views on establishing an ethnic association was manifested at the initial meetings, including disapproval of the commoditization of culture. Privately, some younger people made negative comments about Le TsanKwe’s staging of a kwa-tang ritual for the Thai television crew. My Mien acquaintances said that he had fallen seriously ill within months of staging the ritual and that there was a direct connection; people should not call on spirits in jest or for trivial purposes, as the spirits will strike back and cause them illness or death, as had happened to Le Tsan Kwe. “See!” Other critical voices variously assumed or questioned the previous framework of Mien relations with spirits. The range of voices presented three different perspectives. One was that of NGO activists who were keen to define culture as related to eco-wisdom and other matters of defending the rights to livelihood. Another was that of schoolteachers and other leaders who were most interested in the staging of culture and identity for a general audience. The third was that of farmers, both men and women, who saw younger people’s immersion in Thai ways as a threat to the continuation of rural households and ritual practices. No one perspective clearly had the upper hand and everyone who wished to had a say at the meeting. Despite some voices of criticism, the shared concern of forming an organization around matters of identity and culture played into the hands of particular segment of Mien social life, those best connected to outside agents such as the state and nongovernmental organizations. The effort served to mute a range of Mien agendas, particularly those assuming the primacy of households in social life. The Tribal Research Institute’s documentation of the Mien wedding expressed the same redefinition of the parameters of social life. An expensive, household-based wedding was captured as representative of the ways of the ethnic group as a whole. In public view via documentary video for the TRI’s Tribal Museum, no local agendas were presented, simply the shared ways of traditional peoples. The meeting in Pangkha established the Mien Association as an organization, an interest group, centering on matters of their identity and culture and the defense of their rights in the context of state control and various issues of development. As a vehicle for the identification of a marginalized people and with various implied links to national and international organizational and funding bodies, the Mien Association has many parallels within an increasingly global world of indigenous peoples. The association expresses a local response to modernity and modernization. While the Mien Association was formed between late 1992 and early1993, their first public event was not held until 2001, when a sports and culture festival brought together teams from seventeen out of two hundred Mien villages in Thailand to compete in soccer and other “modern” sports associated with Thai schools. For two evenings during the four days of the air there was entertainment that combined traditional song and dance, history/heritage in the form of an old, handwritten and illustrated scroll that described Yao origins and their relation to Imperial Chinese society, and combination of quiz shows and pop songs that emulated national television. The event shared elements with village and sub district festivals that I had seen in the early 1990s. For example, there was gender division between the organizing Village Committee (all men) and the Village Housewives’ Group (all women) who cooked and served lunch for the participants. Both the Village Committee and the Housewives’ Group were institutions that grew outfox the state’s modernization agenda for the countryside. The sports events that were somewhat common in the early 1990s appropriated much national imagery, often featuring a speech by an invited politician, and always containing flag-raising and the singing of either the national anthem or a song honoring the Thai king. The fair in 2001 was inexplicit celebration of Mien tradition and culture that contributed to the more widespread alignment of nation and modernity in the public sphere and blurred whatever boundaries there were between Mien realities and domains of the Thai state and nation. Mien people’s enactments of culture and identity at weddings and rituals for Thai video crews did not match the standard definition of political action. As distraction and potential entertainment to Thai viewers of television, traditional ethnic culture is the mimetic expression of an urban, national stereotype of modernity’s opposite. Minority people’s explicit politics or agitation had been suppressed as anti-national. Displays of tradition and identity provided an avenue for recognition and rights that would otherwise have been precluded in the national arena. Public Mien enactments of identity played to the national stereotype of happy and apolitical farming populations as they attempted to redefine the conditions of their everyday life. Mien organizers might have brought some benefits to their rural communities. But the separation of culture and identity from any questions of basic rights and livelihood might have also reinforced the national bias against the needs of minority farmers who “don’t like to grow rice.” There is income ways, a constant risk in treating culture as something distinct from the dynamics of everyday life.

 

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