44th Meeting – September 1988

The Contemporary Situation in the Thai Highlands

A panel discussion with W.R. Geddes, Wanat Bhruksasri, and Peter Hinton

Bill Geddes reviewed the national significance of the foreign contribution to development [US$ 60 per capita] and the impact on highlanders, expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of knowl­edge [especially the widely held and erroneous notion that highlanders are solely responsible for deforestation and that trees and trees alone protect the watershed, ensure a high water yield, etc.]. He expressed special concern for the institutional exclusion of highlanders from government decision-making procedures and recommended establishing a council where they can present their opinions.

Wanat Bhruksasri provided a spontaneous rejoinder to Geddes and an interpretation which partly complemented the evaluation of the current state of knowledge ["hill tribe problems" of national security, deforestation and narcotics are national problems, rather than those faced by the hill tribes]. Ajaan Wanat rejected the Geddes suggestion to form a council. He argued that the unitary nature of the state could not be compromised and that the natural process of integration which is taking place should be acknowledged and assisted. Representation of highlander inter­ests is important but cannot be promoted at the risk of obstruct­ing national integration.

Peter Hinton provided a more enigmatic, impressionistic set of comments on cats, cabbages and projects. He first told a story about a collector and trader of antiques who attempted to acquire a valuable plate being used as a feeding dish for cats by of­fering to help the farmer by tak­ing the cats and plate off his hands. The farmer replied that the plate was kept to help get rid of the rats and could not be taken.

"Researchers are antique collectors chasing illusive truths". His second story concerned a visit to Mae Tho, a village last visited when the hillsides were covered with opium poppies. The sight, smell and squeak of cabbages underfoot provided a surrealistic experience, the substance of the development dream? Projects were then discussed; by one count, over 3,000. An anthropology of the highlands must be much more than a study of ethnic minority groups. Studies must include underprivileged highland Thai farmers and Bangkok and internation­ally funded projects. The highly dynamic reality of this milieu cannot be understood through a prism of rigid and often misleading ethnic classifications. A broader approach must be adopted under which projects as complex social organizations must also be studied.