Supplementary Material

Reframing the Boundaries of Indigeneity: State-Based Ontologies and Assertions of Distinction and Compatibility in Thailand

ABSTRACT In this article, I discuss the concept of Indigeneity as it is being localized in post-2000s Thailand by a coalition of ethnic minorities. Their claim of Indigeneity is unique in purporting a state-based ontology that identifies the rise of the modern Thai state with that of their Indigeneity, reflecting the problematic nature in Thailand of claims to first peoples’ status. The Thai state has long perceived of these yet-to-be-recognized Indigenous Peoples as “illegal migrants.” Indigenous Peoples are working to assert not only their cultural distinctiveness but also their compatibility with the nation, especially via public performances of their loyalty to the Thai king. While their performances of Indigeneity are necessarily conforming to Thai nationalist expectations of ethnicity and belonging, Indigenous Peoples are reworking those expectations in a manner allowing them to get their own interpretations of history and systems of value recognized and distributed to larger audiences. [Indigeneity, performance, cunning of the unrecognized, royalist nationalism, Thailand]

Some of the non-Indigenous organizers of the event in honor of the king that is discussed in my article prepared a series of short, somewhat dramatized documentaries highlighting different aspects of the event. The documentaries are all entitled “Bringing Ethnic Peoples Together to Honor His Majesty the King” and include some narration and interviews with select Indigenous participants in the Thai language. The first documentary begins in Bangkok in the early part of the morning on May 5, 2012, with the arrival of some 1,600 Indigenous people via train from the northern provincial city of Chiang Mai. The remainder of that documentary highlights different aspects of the day’s proceedings as they unfolded at the event’s main venue, King Rama the Ninth Public Park in Bangna.

The second documentary includes prolonged narration in Thai, a series of Thai-language interviews with select Indigenous participants about their motivations for joining the event, and footage of an Indigenous Karen centenarian—elder Ko-ee Mi-mee—offering a final blessing to the king on behalf of the larger Indigenous collective during the morning rites of royalist-nationalist loyalty. Several Indigenous organizations that co-organized the event later distributed a longer version of the documentary for free to various Indigenous participants and the general public. Those organizations included the Inter-Mountain Peoples Association for Education and Culture in Thailand (IMPECT), the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT), and the Karen Network for Culture and the Environment (KNCE).

The following are some photographs from events discussed in the article. All photographs are by the author.

On May 4, 2012, I traveled with some 1,600 Indigenous people from the small Northern Thai provincial capital of Chiang Mai to the national capital and megalopolis of Bangkok. We traveled overnight aboard a special convoy of fifteen third-class train cars donated by the State Railway of Thailand. We were en route to a special event in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on National Coronation Day. In this photo, the elderly gentleman positioned front and center is holding two miniature versions of first, the national flag of Thailand (with red, white and blue stripes), and, second, the royal flag of King Bhumibol (in yellow).

This photograph offers a panoramic view of the main ritual space where the day’s events began and ended with a series of orchestrated ritual offerings and performances of royalist-nationalist loyalty in honor of King Bhumibol as symbolic of the nation writ large. I took the photo from the upper level of the memorial building (The Garden of the Great King) where the event occurred. Notice the dark gray clouds gathering in the sky. Towards the very end of the day’s events, one of the ethnic Thai emcee’s commented that it was an auspicious sign that while the clouds had gathered to block the hot sun it did not actually rain until after they had completed their rites of loyalty.

Here two elderly Iu-Mien women hold a banner on which the words “Long Live the King” are written in Thai (above) and Iu-Mien script (below). While the main body of the banner is in yellow, the principal color associated with the Thai monarchy, the trim of the banner is adorned with elaborate Iu-Mien embroidery.

In this photo, an elderly Karen male ritual specialist places a material offering for the king on a Thai Buddhist altar positioned just below and in front of the king’s image. The main offering includes several cooked chickens adorned with white cotton string.

Here a middle-aged Lahu male ritual specialist kneels and chants in front of an offering prepared in honor of the king.

In this photo, ethnic Karen representatives participate in a merit-making ceremony performed by eight Thai Buddhist monks as part of the event’s inaugural rites of royalist-nationalist loyalty, during which elders from each respective Indigenous group simultaneously made their own distinct ritual offerings to the king. Karen were the only Indigenous group to actively participate in the distinctly Thai Buddhist rite. The fact that a significant number of Karen in Thailand incorporate Buddhism as one of their often multireligious practices buttresses their more “positive” image in the larger Thai Buddhist society in comparison to other Indigenous groups.

Indigenous Peoples in Thailand organized the event in honor of the king in collaboration with the largely ethnic Thai leaders of the hyper-royalist/nationalist organization known as the Dharma Army of the Santi Asoke Buddhist reform movement. In this photo, ethnic Thai volunteers (wearing indigo or light-blue-colored dress) associated with the Dharma Army prepare a free midday vegetarian meal for the event’s participants.

In between the event’s morning and early evening ritual offerings to the king, a series of Indigenous performances and a seminar were held in a different section of the park. In this photo, a dance troupe of Dara’ang female youth perform for a mixed audience of the non-Indigenous (mostly seated in the foreground) and the Indigenous (mostly standing in the background). In the distance one can see part of the expansive urban Bangkok skyline.

Throughout the day, middle-aged Akha women stole the show, captivating the gaze of the other participants—especially the non-Indigenous participants—by staging their bodies dressed in elaborate and expensive indigo-dyed jackets and headdresses adorned with heavy silver jewelry and colorful embroidered patterns. In this photo, two Akha women pose for the author. The distinctive style of each woman’s headdress indicates their particular subgroup. For example, the woman on the left belongs to the Loi-mi subgroup and the woman on the right belongs to the U-bya subgroup. In addition, the women on the right is Mrs. Chutima (Miju) Morlaeku, a prominent Indigenous-rights leader in Thailand and one of the primary Indigenous organizers of the day’s events in honor of the king.

In the evening, all of the Indigenous congregants returned to the Garden of the Great King memorial for a final rite. The rite began as one of the Thai organizers lit each of the three large yellow candles that had been placed on a small Thai Buddhist altar positioned directly below and in front of the king’s image. Meanwhile, each of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous congregants, myself included, received a much smaller single candle that we then lit on our own. By this time, several Indigenous spokespersons had reorganized the Indigenous congregants into straight, regimented rows facing the king’s image from the lower level of the memorial, reminiscent of disciplined students or soldiers of the nation. I took this photograph from my position in the rear of one of the rows.


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