159th Meeting – July 1997

Corruption in Local Elections in Thailand

A talk by Katherine Bowie

Katherine A. Bowie (kabowie@wisc.edu) is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

N.B. If any minutes were taken for the talk given in 1997 then they have long since been lost. The following two papers are the most recent updates of Katherine’s research in the subject of her talk. ‘Vote Buying and Village Outrage in an Election’ was published in The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 67, No. 2 (May) 2008: 469–511. © 2008 Association of Asian Studies Inc. The complete paper, with all of the footnotes, references and images, may be viewed at www.scribd.com/doc/7723431/Vote-Buying-and-Village-Outrage-in-an-Election-in-Northen-Thailand  

‘Standing in the Shadows’ was published in American Ethnologist , Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 136–153, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425.C
© 2008 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.

DOI: 10.1111/j.2008.1548-1425.00010.x. The complete paper with all of the images may be
viewed at www.scribd.com/doc/7723382/Standing-in-the-shadows

Vote Buying and Village Outrage in an Election in Northern Thailand: Recent Legal Reforms in Historical Context

Katherine A. Bowie

Vote buying has long been considered a major obstacle to democracy in Thailand. As reiterated in explanations of Thailands 2006 military coup, vote buying in Thai electoral politics has often been attributed to traditional village culture and rural ignorance. Placing a 1995 northern Thai election for kamnan (subdistrict head) in historical context, this essay suggests that vote buying did not typify village electoral politics but was an aberration that reached its zenith during the mid-1990s. Legal ambiguities, not rural apathy or ignorance, impeded villagers ability to protest corrupt practices and safeguard their internal democracy. These ambiguities emerged as new democratic laws implemented in 1992 and 1995 to decentralize power conflicted with older laws dating from the days of absolute monarchy. Subsequent legal reforms appear to have mitigated the importance of vote buying in village electoral politics. How these reforms will affect national electoral politics remains to be seen.

Decades ago, Barrington Moore Jr. (1966), observed that the manner of peasant integration into nation-states provides the foundation for understanding the social origins of dictatorship and democracy. Too often, grand narratives of national struggles to attain electoral democracy focus on the urban bourgeoisie, portraying them as the progressive protagonists and the peasantry as the conservative laggards. In Thailand, vote buying has increased dramatically in national electoral politics since the late 1980s. Because rural voters have controlled as many as 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, vote buying has been portrayed as a rural problem rooted in rural ignorance, apathy, poverty, or their “traditional” culture based on patronage. Resurfacing in explanations of Thailand’s most recent coup, many in the Thai urban middle class have concluded that rural voters are “not capable of effective participation in democratic politics” (Ockey 2004, 167). This discourse on vote buying masks the more complex role of Thailand’s urban population in providing periodic support for authoritarian military rule and conceals a class politics in which “metropolitan businesspeople can present their interests as the national interest” (Callahan 2005, 108; see also Anderson 1977; Anek 1993, 1996; Ockey 2004, 151–71). In perpetuating a narrative that portrays villagers as obstacles to democracy, this discourse fails to locate vote buying in its historical context and silences the voices of villagers who are no less outraged by vote buying than their fellow urban citizens.

Despite the growing recognition of the importance of rural voters in establishing a democratic nation, recent studies of electoral politics have focused on national, provincial, and municipal elections. Contemporary ethnographic studies of village politics are almost nonexistent. The first generation of anthropologists and political scientists conducted their fieldwork during the period from the 1950s to 1970s, an era characterized by military dictatorships and a rising rural-based communist insurgency. Although there were few national elections, village elections were generally portrayed as uncontested and consensual. (Herbert P. Phillips (1958) provides an early anthropological account of a national election. The earliest mentions of vote buying in village elections occur in the central region. A losing candidate in a 1953 election for village head suggested the winner had bribed the district officer. Steven Piker mentions vote buying in Ayuthaya in the 1960s. Michael H. Nelson notes vote buying in Chachoengsao in 1985 and in a kamnan election in 1991. Daniel Arghiros (2001, 74) dates the vote buying in a village head election in Ayuthaya to 1988. Ryo Takagi (1999) notes vote buying in an election for kamnan in Nakhon Sawan in 1997.) As provincial towns expanded from the 1980s to the present, scholarly attention shifted to the rise of new urban provincial godfathers in municipal, provincial, and national electoral politics. Although various authors repeatedly noted that these provincial godfathers depended on village and subdistrict heads to act as their vote canvassers, Daniel Arghiros (2001) was the first to refocus attention on the impact of these external politicians on internal village electoral politics. Building on his anthropological study of a 1990 election for kamnan, or subdistrict chief, in Ayuthaya Province in central Thailand, Arghiros concluded that by the 1990s, vote buying in local village elections had become ubiquitous. If the vote buying that began to characterize national elections in the 1980s once seemed a boon to villagers, its penetration into village electoral politics in the 1990s was increasingly seen as their bane.

In April 1995, I had occasion to observe an election for the position of kamnan in a tambon (subdistrict) in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand, which, for the purposes of this essay, I shall call Tambon Thungnaa. (To protect confidentiality, the names of the candidates, village, and tambon are fictitious.) Three of the tambons twelve village heads competed in a bitter campaign. When one of the candidates began to engage in dirty tricks and vote buying, the other two candidates and their supporters were outraged. Blocked from campaigning freely in other villages, the aggrieved villagers sought redress through the district office and through an independent organization, Pollwatch. Their efforts were to no avail. Faced with legal ambiguities and legal lacunae, frustration and anger mounted. Sleepless nights, agonized hours of discussion, tears, and even a stabbing characterized the grueling month long campaign. (Two brothers in Baan Dong got into a fight over the election. Their father had had poor relations with Headman Kaew ever since he refused to give up land for a village road. After Headman Kaew’s brother took the stabbing victim to the hospital, friendly relations were restored.)

Many villagers, whose kinship bonds through birth and marriage crisscrossed the tambon, tried to appear neutral. Some tried to show their support for different candidates by helping with meal preparations and other aspects of the respective campaigns; they found themselves under suspicion as “two-headed birds” (nok song hua), spies for the “enemy” camp. Offers to buy votes only heightened villagers’ dilemmas; both accepting and rejecting such offers jeopardized strategies of plausible deniability. (Because villagers are invariably related to each other and to the candidate, most villagers prefer to appear neutral. One villager explained her plight to me after she was offered money as follows: “If I don’t take it and say, ‘Save your money, I was planning to vote for you anyway,’ they won’t believe you and think you’re just saying that because you plan to vote for the other person. So you just take the money so they’ll think you’ll vote for them. But really no one can see who you’re voting for. It’s hard since we are all related to each other.”) The aftermath was no less fraught with tension. One villager was murdered. Villagers branded as traitors for vote selling found themselves targets of retribution.

In June 1995, I followed another election for kamnan that took place in a neighboring tambon, which, albeit less violent, followed a similar pattern. I was stunned. As a graduate student in anthropology, I had seen two uneventful elections for village head in the late 1970s; in each case, the winners had been foregone conclusions. From the decades of consensual village elections, a dramatic transformation had occurred.

The efforts of outraged villagers to seek redress against vote buying and other dirty tricks both during and after the election drew my attention to the complex interaction between recent legal reforms intended to decentralize power and older laws written during the reign of absolute monarchs that were intended to centralize state power. To this day, rural administration is governed by the Local Administration Act of 1914, itself based on the Local Administration Act of 1897. Just prior to the 1995 election that I observed, two important legal changes had gone into effect. The first change was an amendment to the 1914 Local Administration Act, approved by the government of interim prime minister Anan Panyarachun in March 1992. This amendment limited village leaders elected after July 1992 to five-year terms; existing village leaders were allowed to remain in office until they reached age sixty, the previously mandated age of retirement. Ironically, although this amendment was apparently intended to reduce the entrenched power of corrupt village heads, it strengthened the hand of the older generation of village leaders at the expense of the incoming generation. The second change was the approval of the Act on Tambon Councils and Tambon Administrative Organizations (TAOs) by the Chuan Leekpai government at the end of 1994. This law, which I will abbreviate hereafter as the 1994 Tambon Act, went into effect in March 1995. Intended to decentralize the power of the national bureaucracy, this law expanded the role of these subdistrict organizations. Because kamnan were ex officio heads of these bodies and village heads were ex officio members, the initial 1994 Tambon Act served to increase the powers of these village leaders. At the time of the 1995 elections that I observed, village heads and kamnan were poised at a new pinnacle of power.

Subsequent legal reforms have again shifted the dynamics of village politics. Spurred by the ratification of Thailands so-called Peoples Constitution in 1997, which mandated the decentralization of state power, additional changes were made to the 1994 Tambon Act. In 1999, kamnan were no longer allowed to serve as TAO heads; instead the chair was to be elected internally from among its member village representatives. In 2001, all ex officio positions in TAOs were eliminated (see Arghiros 2002; Nelson 2000, 19, 45; Noranit et al. 2002). In October 2002, the Thai government underwent a major restructuring, marking the first major reorganization of ministries since King Chulalongkorn set up Thailands modern system of departmental government in 1897 (Painter 2006, 39; Thitinan 2003, 284, 288). As a result, kamnan and village heads now are administered by a different department in the Ministry of Interior than the department that oversees TAOs and other such bodies. Given their lower salaries and lessened responsibilities, a growing number of kamnan and village heads today are resigning in order to run for TAO positions; alternatively, they are encouraging family members to run for TAO seats. (In Tambon Thungnaa, the basic monthly salary for a new kamnan is 4,500 baht and a new village head 4,000 baht. By comparison, the TAO chair earns 18,000 baht, the deputy chair earns 8,000 baht, and village representatives earn 4,500 baht per month.)

(Various proposals for tambon council reform had received earlier support from the Social Action Party, Thai Nation Party, Democrat Party, and the Ministry of Interior. During the September 1992 election campaign, several political parties included decentralization in their platforms. The Phalang Dharma party was most vocal in calling for the election of provincial governors and district officers. The 1994 Tambon Act was widely interpreted as a compromise to thwart this pressure. In December 1994, the Chuan government sought to require the direct election of all members of the tambon councils. However, “aware that they stood to lose a key source of influence and graft, the country’s kamnan and village heads aggressively lobbied the then minister of interior, the leader of the New Aspiration Party Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.” Chavalit ensured that kamnan and village heads maintained their ex officio positions in the tambon bodies. When Chavalit became prime minister in November 1996, kamnan and village heads were “enthusiastic hua khanaen for him and his party”)

Throughout the twentieth century, kamnan and village heads were known as the fathersof their communities (poh kamnan, poh luang). In the space of less than a decade, the positions of kamnan and village head are being transformed from fathers to figureheads, seeming anachronisms from an era of absolute monarchs. (In the wake of Thailand’s most recent coup in September 1996, various initiatives towards decentralization were reversed. In May 2007, the Cabinet approved a bill to allow kamnan and village heads to serve until age 60, and changed their status from elected politicians to civil servants selected by governors. Further changes remain under discussion.)

Theda Skocpol has argued that “agrarian structures and conflicts offer important keys to the patterns of modern politics” (1979, xv). Using the 1995 election as a case study, this essay suggests that tensions in village electoral politics escalated during the mid-1990s because of legal ambiguities resulting from the conflict between new democratic laws intended to decentralize power and older feudal laws intended to centralize power.

This essay is divided into three sections. In the first section, I will discuss the development of village administration, beginning with its nineteenth-century origins in a top-down feudal administrative legal system based on an ideology in which villagers were to serve the state. (I am using “feudal” to refer to a hierarchical political system in which lords extracted resources from the peasantry. Although some have sought to differentiate Southeast Asian and European feudalism based on control over people versus control over land, I would note that historian Georges Duby, writing of medieval Europe, has also argued that “what constituted the real basis of wealth at that time was not ownership of land but power over men”).

The second section of this essay focuses on the period after the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, outlining the development of bottom-up democratic legal institutions based on an ideology in which the state was expected to serve the people. Follow- ing this overview of the conflicting trends in the national legal framework in which villagers were embedded, the final section provides an ethnographic account of the 1995 election campaign and its aftermath. Seen from the perspective of the longue durée, vote buying in village electoral politics was not a continuation of traditional village culture but an aberration resulting from a specific historical moment in which the conflict between two legal trends reached its zenith in village politics.

Centralization: Feudal Subjects Serving the State

Although villagers have long been ignored as “people without history” (Wolf 1982), changes in administrative law over the course of the twentieth century affected the dynamics of Thai village politics. (In 2004, the Thai Rak Thai party announced plans to abolish direct elections of village heads and kamnan entirely (McCargo and Ukrist 2005). Concerned about colonial advances in Burma and Indochina during the late nineteenth century, King Rama V (r. 1868–1910) entrusted the task of reforming the country’s rural administration to his half-brother, Prince Damrong Rajanuphab. (Rural administration emerged from the earlier Department of the North, whereas urban administration developed from the Department of the Capital (see Tej 1977; Riggs 1966). As founder of the powerful Ministry of Interior, Prince Damrong (r. 1894–1915) established the national hierarchy of provinces (cangwat), districts (amphur), subdistricts (tambon), and villages (muubaan). The provincial and district levels of government were incorporated into a highly centralized national bureaucracy. Due to budget constraints, Prince Damrong left tambon and village administration in the hands of local villagers. The Local Administration Acts of 1897 and 1914 established the rules governing the election of village leaders and defined their responsibilities. Villagers elected their village heads; village heads, in turn, elected one among themselves to become kamnan. Thus, through village elections, Prince Damrong deftly allowed village communities a modicum of internal democracy while incorporating them under a hierarchical feudal bureaucracy. As this section will show, vote buying did not characterize village electoral politics, both because villagers found holding village office increasingly less attractive over the course of the twentieth century and because precedents were in place to facilitate internal consensus among villagers in advance of their formal elections.

Serving Rama: The Period of Absolute Monarchy (1897–1932)

Rural administration developed within a feudal conception of peasant–court relations in which the primary concern of the state was stability and the extraction of goods and services. Under the earlier periods of absolute monarchy, local officials had been expected to “keep the list of men available for military service, report signs of people assembling, list the elephants in the province, get to know the strangers that come to live in the province, and the like” (Wales 1934, 126–30). As Tej Bunnag explains, the late nineteenth-century court was primarily interested in the peasantry because they “provided an abundant supply of free labour; secondly, they could rapidly be called to arms in case of war; thirdly, those who paid their commutation tax in kind provided valuable goods; and finally, those who paid in cash provided the government with revenue” (1977, 9–10). With a more centralized administration, Prince Damrong explained, “we will naturally be able . . . to direct the people more easily than in the past” (Tej 1977, 109).

The primary responsibility of village heads and kamnan was to facilitate the security and revenue interests of the state. Village heads were considered the heads (huanaa) of their villages. The 1914 act lists eight duties of village heads: to maintain peace (raksaa khwaamsangop) and public well-being (khwaam suksamraan); to inform the kamnan of dangers requiring his assistance; to inform villagers of all government announcements or orders; to keep village household registration lists up to date; to inform the kamnan of unusual events in the village that may endanger the village or the government; to investigate any strangers who are not listed on the village household register who enter the village; to summon villagers (luukbaan) to catch criminals, confiscate stolen property, extinguish fires, or render other assistance; and to summon troublemakers and vagrants for questioning. In addition, village heads were empowered to make arrests of known or suspected criminals and to confiscate property. In addition to their duties as village heads, kamnan had tambon-wide responsibilities. Theses duties included maintaining order, informing people of laws, protecting against danger, maintaining public well-being, and collecting taxes. They were to arrest known or suspected criminals and send them to the district office; follow orders to arrest individuals and to search or confiscate property; inform the district of problems; and call meetings of fellow village headmen and their underlings to put out fires or assist with other activities. In addition, kamnan were to find places for traveling strangers to stay and assist with the requests of government officials in need of transportation or food. Kamnan were also expected to take care of public locations such as rest houses, ponds of water, and places for animal pasturage. They were to keep household registration lists up to date, keep records of taxable goods for their subdistricts, and escort people to pay taxes.

Kin Muang: The Practice of Feudal Self-Remuneration

As with their duties, the manner of remuneration for village leaders developed within this feudal context. Rulers and officials claimed the right to kin muang, the practice of self-remuneration by obtaining their income from the goods and services provided by the people under their jurisdiction. As Prince Damrong noted on his tour of eighteen provinces in 1892, governors made a living out of the provincial administration by using their position to promote their own commercial interests, to protract legal proceedings for the sake of judicial fees, and to keep for themselves as much of the central governments revenue as possible (Tej 1977, 99). Under the administrative reforms of Prince Damrong, village leaders were not considered to be salaried government officials. Initially, village leaders were merely exempted from paying certain taxes; subsequently, they were allowed to keep a portion of the taxes and fees they collected for the state (Tej 1977, 12324). Around 1938, kamnan and village heads began to receive a small monthly stipend (De Young 1966, 16; see Snit 1967 for further details).

Such minimal compensation encouraged the continuation of the feudal kin muang practices of extracting public tribute, taxes, and labor among village leaders. Villagers often planted and harvested the fields of their village heads (Bowie 1988; see also Arghiros 2001, 76; Delcore 2000). Although the power of village leaders within their communities was checked to varying degrees by their personal conscience, their kin groups, their shared economic interests, and their superiors in the district office, some leaders were able to take advantage of their positions to become wealthy. Lauriston Sharp and Lucien M. Hanks describe a kamnan’s rise to power at the turn of the century in central Thailand whose income grew as he “took the responsibility of showing newcomers where to find vacant land, helping stake out their borders, and settling their disputes” (1978, 114, 233). Over time, the kamnan’s lifestyle came to resemble that of the feudal aristocracy:

“In turn people paid him their land tax, from which he extracted his fee. Soon the canal between his house and the temple was filled with the boats of those who wished his protection. His household grew with wives and children. His orchard yielded abundant fruit at the hands of his servants. Baskets of grain came to his storehouse from the toil of his tenants. When the crops were in, musicians gathered in the courtyard of his house to begin the songs from the jeweled dancers. Across the fields trooped householders bearing trays of food for the kamnan; they would savor for a moment something of courtly life.”

Authorized to arrest villagers and confiscate property, the less scrupulous village leaders found opportunities for extra-legal gain as they collected taxes and organized corvée labor. In Tambon Thungnaa, a former kamnan used his links with outside government officials to conduct raids on villagers who had amassed teak for future house building and to threaten their arrest (see also Arghiros 2001, 74–77). As teak logging was illegal, he collected bribes and confiscated the teak for his own usage. As head of the dam that irrigated lands in his sub-district and several other sub-districts, he demanded compensation from all villagers downriver, as well as from villagers dependent on water from the canals he oversaw. He gradually acquired more and more land, becoming one of the most powerful men in the district. Ruthless, he was rumored to have used magical powers to kill those who had dared oppose him.

However, not all village leaders were ruthless or unscrupulous. For those who tried to serve their communities, their monthly stipend could hardly compensate for their social obligations. Village heads were embedded in kinship networks that ensured some redistribution of wealth through charitable giving (see Bowie 1998). As John De Young explains, “Headmanship confers prestige and honor on the incumbent, but it carries heavy responsibilities, and demands considerable time. The allotment paid by the central government is too small to be of financial gain to the headman; in fact, the office usually costs him money because he will be expected to make frequent contributions to the temple and for funerals, and to provide food, betel nut, liquor, cigarettes, and cigars for prominent visitors.”

In Tambon Thungnaa, the successor to the ruthless kamnan was a man of more modest means; he found the expenses of hosting visitors and attending the never- ending cycle of funerals, housewarmings, and other ritual events throughout the tambon to be a considerable financial burden.

Synaptic Leaders: Between State and Citizenry

In these earlier decades, willingness to hold local office varied. As reflected in their titles as “fathers” of their communities, holding village office was considered prestigious. Nonetheless, kamnan and village heads were “synaptic leaders” squeezed between the pressures exerted by their villages and officialdom (Moerman 1969, 548–49). Some scholars have suggested “the authority inherent in a role sanctioned by both national and peasant systems has an obvious attraction for those who seek power at the village level” (Keyes 1970, 105). David M. Engel provides insight into the potential power inherent in the mediating role of village leaders:

“If they are skillful they can play their two identities against one another, offering protection against the harsh workings of the laws and regulations which they enforce, and also threatening to use those laws and regulations against persons unwilling to negotiate disputes or persons disrespectful of their authority. In the area of criminal violations, the arrest and reporting powers of the village chief and kamnan give them a powerful club to wield over recalcitrant individuals.” (1978, 89–90)

The position of kamnan offered even more opportunities than that of village head alone because kamnan could “increase their power by playing off local and national demands to a greater extent” (Keyes 1970, 105–6).

Yet other scholars have argued that this mediatory position deterred most villagers from seeking office. As Clark D. Neher writes, “As a middleman the headman is constantly subjected to conflicting pressures and is therefore in a most unenviable position.” (1976, 217; see also Moerman 1969, 549; Kemp 1976, 258). Moerman suggests that some villagers, when given advance warning of their potential nomination, even began to “campaign in reverse,” asking their friends and kinsmen not to vote for them (1969, 538). Herbert J. Rubin found that most villagers he interviewed did not want to be a village leader, noting that “the benefits were not worth the cost” (1973, 434). Upon his election, one headman commented, “I must accept my duty and my burden even though I will lose my popularity” (Neher 1974, 46). Another headman explained, “It’s hard to be headman. One must listen to the officials and listen to the villagers. If one says ‘no,’ the villagers scold; if one says ‘yes,’ the officials scold. One is neither a villager nor an official. One is in the middle. It’s hard and the money is small. No one wants the job.” (Moerman 1969, 547)

Conflict Avoidance: Elections without Campaigns

The extent to which Prince Damrong’s institution of village elections was an innovation is unclear. (Prince Damrong noted that some villagers “actually disliked the idea of electing commune and village elders” (Tej 1977, 188). Because villagers were embarrassed to choose a fellow villager by a show of hands, Prince Damrong instituted the option of a secret ballot in 1897 (Tej 1977, 122–3). The 1914 act defines a village as anywhere from five to two hundred villagers. C. W. Kynnersley suggests that in Trang Province, “The people of 10 houses or any collection of houses up to 20 elect the Phoo-yai-baan and the Phoo-yai-bans elect the Kamnan” (1905, 14). Northern Thai headmen were usually the wealthiest landowners in the village and also oversaw the irrigation system and any royal lands in their area. Often succeeding their fathers or fathers-in-law, their role as local elites may have facilitated both their selection or election). For villagers for whom harmonious inter-matrilineal relations are best served by consensus, the partisan format of a formal election may well have seemed strange. As Herbert P. Phillips notes, villagers believe “that to present the name of an opposition candidate in public would be socially awkward” (1958, 37). Under the 1914 act, both male and female villagers were eligible to vote for their village head. The only qualifications for voting were that one must be under Siamese jurisdiction and must be a lay person age twenty or older. Candidates for the position of village head were to be lay male householders, age twenty or older, and under Siamese jurisdiction; servants, employees, and soldiers were explicitly excluded. The district officer, together with the kamnan and other village heads of that tambon, oversaw the election of village heads. If villagers were uncomfortable with an open election, they could request a secret election in which they whispered their choice in the ear of the district officer. The kamnan was elected by the village headmen of a given tambon at a meeting presided over by the district officer. In turn, the kamnan appointed two assistants. These elections and appointments were subject to the approval of the provincial governors.

Reflecting the likely pattern of earlier decades, village elections of the 1950s to the1970s are overwhelmingly portrayed as uncontested. Villagers seem to have developed various mechanisms to ensure minimal conflict in the election of their leaders. The general pattern appears to have been to nominate a candidate who had served as assistant to the outgoing head, had been nominated by the outgoing head, or who had been chosen by a private consensus reached by village elders (representatives of internal village matrilines). De Young describes a northern village election during his fieldwork in 194849, noting that there is no campaigning: the retiring headman and his informal council of elders recommend one or two candidates from mature, respected men of the village, and the villagers vote for these candidates” (1966, 18). He remarks that, commonly, the most popular candidate will be the assistant to the retiring headman because “he is familiar with the office, and will have gained the respect of the villagers in his dealings with them as assistant.” Phillips writes of a central Thai election that “the prospective headman is privately designated by his predecessor or a higher ranking headman” (1958, 37). Writing of the village that he studied in northeastern Thailand, Charles F. Keyes notes that “the role of puyaiban [village head] is semi-hereditary and elections merely serve to confirm in office the man that everyone knows should be headman” (1970, 105). In the northeast, kamnan often held their positions by virtue of being village head of the central village of the tambon (baan tambon; see Keyes 1970, 105). Of six village elections he studied, Rubin provides the following example of a typical pro forma election:

To please the District Officer two candidates were nominated. The informally chosen headman won 91–2. Afterwards the villagers adjourned to the new headman’s house where a party had already been arranged.

Villagers generally appear to have chosen their own candidates without official interference. In the election that Neher observed, although the district officer convened the election meeting, “the district officer, who was not acquainted with the new headman, did not attempt to influence the vote” (1974, 46). However, there are cases in which district officers were actively involved in the selection of village leaders. In the village that Michael Moerman studied, “Villagers claim, and officials suggest, that the official arrives having already determined which villager he favors for the office. It is most unlikely that the elders would name anyone of whom the officials would disapprove strongly” (1969, 537). District involvement has also been noted in village elections in southern Thailand (Fraser 1966, 45; Thomas 1970, 166–67). Such bureaucratic involvement would also have rendered election campaigning moot.

Changes after the Constitutional Monarchy: Hanuman Battles On

Over the course of the twentieth century, the basic legal framework for village-level elections was amended only four times before 1992. After the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, new qualifications for village leaders were added in 1943, specifying that candidates must have Thai nationality, must not be over age sixty, and must be literate in Thai. Ironically, while adding a clause requiring village heads to have administrative abilities in line with the constitution, the 1943 amendments eliminated the election of village heads and the exclusion of soldiers; instead village heads were to be soldiers or policemen appointed by district officials. These latter clauses were short-lived, and democratic elections were re-established in 1946. (See Von der Mehden and Wilson (1970, 192237) for a translation of the 1914 act with the 1946 clauses. The 1943 amendments give deeper meaning to David A. Wilsons remarks about “greater influence for army officers in the government” (1962, 176). Virginia Thompson (1955, 14546) is the only scholar to even note this dramatic change. Intriguingly, she notes that in 1950,  The government itself opposed in Parliament a proposal to revive election of headmen, claiming that ‘since village chiefs have the status of assistants to civil officials, it is technically right that they be nominated by those officials rather than elected by the people’” (1955, 147). In 1972, Decree no. 364 was issued, which made minor modifications in the qualifications for village headmen, reintroducing a minimum age of not less than twenty (which had been suspended in 1943 to enable the appointment of soldiers and police) and requiring the completion of the compulsory level of education or its equivalence (then grade four). More importantly, this decree terminated the former practice of internally electing kamnan by fellow village headmen and instituted the direct election of kamnan by the people in that tambon. However, even after 1972, village headmen generally continued to confer among themselves to decide the next kamnan; usually the successor came from the same village as the retiring kamnan and was often his deputy kamnan. In 1982, women were allowed to run for kamnan and village heads for the first time; however, because village heads generally served until retirement, this amendment had little immediate impact.

Although the format for village elections underwent little change, the responsibilities of village leaders expanded over the century. Following the coup of 1932 which overthrew the absolute monarchy and established Thailand’s first Parliament, democratic expectations that the state should serve the people increased. As a result, the 1914 act was amended in 1943, adding eleven more duties for village heads to perform. Among them were provisions that village heads were to train fellow villagers for warfare; protect them against infectious diseases; improve villagers’ livelihood in agriculture, commerce, and industry; and keep villages clean and orderly. As competition for land increased, village heads were forced to adjudicate a growing number of conflicts over land rights. Furthermore, as Engel notes, the number of laws and policies that village leaders were expected to enforce also increased, as the previously unrestricted customary village practices of gambling, opium, alcohol, and forest usage became “objects of governmental prescription and intervention” With the rise of communist insurgency based in the countryside in the late 1950s and 1960s, there were added dangers to being a village leader; some village heads were assassinated as communist sympathizers and others as government lackeys.

Based on his fieldwork in1960, Moerman provides ethnographic detail of the time-consuming duties carried out by village leaders on a daily basis: traveling long distances to the district office for meetings; convening village meetings to announce the names of those whose birth dates required them to appear for school registration or military conscription; organizing public works and religious affairs including matters relating to the repair and maintenance of the temple and to large-scale Buddhist festivals; supervising road maintenance and school construction; maintaining careful records of contributions to community projects; and mediating disputes “as diverse as the theft of a pomelo, desertion, divorce, armed assault, and rape” (1969, 539–40). In addition, village leaders were “the first to be invited to funerals, ordinations, and similar festivities given in other villages” (1969, 542; see also Fraser 1966, 45–49; Kingshill 1976, 105–21).

That frustration with increasing state expectations was mounting among village leaders is revealed in the remarks made by two villagers who were headmen before the start of World War II; as they commented to Moerman, In the old days, one was elder of the village. Now the headman is merely the hired messenger of the officials” (1969, 549). Although earlier village heads had generally served for decades at a stretch, anthropological accounts of the middle of the twentieth century provide various cases in which village head resigned early because they felt “the burden is too great and the rewards too small” (Moerman 1969). As Konrad Kingshill, who conducted his fieldwork in northern Thailand in the 1950s, commented, “A district officer who demands too much work of his Kamnans and headmen will find frequent resignations.

Drawing on the epic story of the Ramayana, a 1961 Ministry of Interior brochure illustrates the kamnan as Hanuman, the monkey chief who served King Rama. Depicted with multiple arms, Hanuman juggles the diverse duties of handling administrative affairs, maintaining the peace, developing occupations, promoting culture, ensuring public health, and miscellaneous other matters. Because village leaders had virtually no state budget at their disposal, fulfilling these growing responsibilities to both state and populace would indeed have required supernatural abilities. Thus, over the course of the century, there was a growing reluctance among villagers to hold village offices.

Decentralization: The State Serving its Citizens

After the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, democratic efforts to decentralize state power resulted in the creation of new institutions at the tambon, provincial, and national level. Initially these bodies were only allowed to serve advisory functions, but over the course of the twentieth century, they became more independent. In contrast to the feudal view that people were to provide tribute and labor to serve the government, these councils reflected the expanding democratic ethos that government should serve the people. Catalyzed by a growing communist insurgency and rural unrest, these bodies grew in importance after 1975 with the institution of the Tambon Development Fund and other related governmental development budgets. As this section will show, access to the new development funds flowing through these ever-strengthening bodies served to reawaken Hanuman’s interest in holding village office in the last decades of the twentieth century and set the stage for ensuing conflicts in village-level electoral politics.

Tambon Councils: Developing Influence

Tambon councils can be traced to the tambon committees (khanakammakaan tambon) set out in the Local Administration Act of 1914. Intended to facilitate the kamnan’s role in ensuring law and order within his subdistrict, this law provided for at least monthly meetings of the kamnan, village headmen, and tambon medic to discuss tambon affairs. In 1943, district officers were authorized to expand these tambon committees by appointing one teacher and an unspecified number of respected villagers. However, these bodies had no budget and played merely an advisory role to the kamnan. In 1956, the government of Field Marshal P. Phibulsongkhram issued Ministry of Interior Order no. 222, which established the first tambon councils (saphaa tambon) authorized both to receive money from national or provincial budgets and to raise local funds. Large and unwieldy, these tambon councils were chaired by the district officer and comprised ex officio and appointed members. These councils proved ineffective because their activities remained “budgetarily and administratively under the authority of the district officer.”

Spurred by growing concerns about the spread of communism and increasing recognition of the problems inherent in the existing structure, the Ministry of Interior issued Tambon Council Law no. 275 in 1966. Limited in its initial implementation to a pilot program in northeastern Thailand supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, this law was intended to make the tambon council more democratic. The tambon council was streamlined into a single entity, with the kamnan now serving as chair rather than the district officer. Whereas previously meetings had been held at the discretion of the district officer, the new law required a minimum of four meetings each year. In addition to the kamnan, village headmen, the tambon medic, and one appointed teacher were also members; for the first time, villagers were allowed to elect a representative from their respective village. All other officials were now eliminated, although community development officials and an assistant district officer were to act as non-voting advisors to the council. Tambon councils were authorized to approve or disapprove village development projects and file grievances of official misconduct (Adth 1970, 63–72; Rubin and Rubin 1973; see Von der Mehden and Wilson 1970, 283–90, for a translation). However, by 1970, only some 10 percent of tambons had been authorized to adopt this format (Neher 1970b, 9).

The overwhelming majority of tambons in the country remained under the unwieldy 1956 form of tambon council until December 1972, when Revolutionary Council Decree no. 326 was issued. Modeled on the format of no. 275, this decree established kamnan as the heads of the tambon councils nationwide for the first time, with village heads and the tambon medic as members ex officio. In addition, one representative was to be elected from each village for a five-year term. The district officer appointed the tambon council advisor, who was either a deputy district officer or an official from the community development department, and the secretary, a teacher in the tambon. The district officer oversaw tambon council budgets and was authorized to stop “harmful” policies.

Although this organizational structure remained unchanged until 1995, the importance of tambon councils grew as the amount of government funds being channeled through these local councils began to increase. In 1975, newly elected Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj implemented a controversial Tambon Development Fund, marking “the first time central funds were allocated to be spent on locally decided development projects” (Turton 1989, 91; see also Prathan 1986, 15; Suvit and Koonthong 1976). Under the 1982–86 National Economic and Social Development Plan, tambon councils were expected to develop long-term economic and social plans for their localities (Turton 1989, 91; see also Nelson 1998, 39–44, 225). Although tambon council decisions were still constrained by a “top-down” structure in which district officials were directly involved (see Chaichana 1990; Nelson 1998), money was flowing. With growing budgets for road construction and other local projects, the positions of village head and kamnan became increasingly attractive.

In 1995, the new 1994 Tambon Council and Tambon Administrative Organization Act went into effect. This law provided for a gradual transition from single-body tambon councils to dual-body tambon administrative organizations, the latter form in effect for larger sub-districts with greater tax revenues. This law also established both forms as legal entities able to sign their own contracts and file legal cases in the event of contracted work not meeting standards. In both the older tambon councils and the newer TAOs, kamnan were the heads and village heads were members ex officio. With increased budgets now passing through these tambon bodies and greater power to allocate their budgets independent of the district offices, the new law created a widespread expectation that the power of the kamnan and village heads was destined to increase significantly.

Provincial Councils: Constructing Power

Like the tambon councils, the power of provincial organizations grew over the course of the twentieth century. Provincial councils were created in 1933, in the aftermath of the 1932 coup that established a constitutional monarchy. Suspicious of the political inexperience of the council,” the first members were appointed by the provincial governors and subject to the approval of the Minister of the Interior (Choop 1962, 24). A new law in 1938 provided that all members be elected. However, lacking legislative authority and an independent tax base, the elected council remained merely “an advisory board to the governor and his staff rather than a council for local self-government” (Choop 1962, 27). With the Japanese occupation of Thailand during World War II, the provincial councils declined. No provincial elections were held after 1943, and they were abolished in 1953 (Thompson 1955, 147). Provincial councils were resurrected under the Provincial Administrative Act of 1955. Under this act, half of their members were elected and half appointed; in 1956, the law was amended, providing that all members be elected for five-year terms (Riggs 1966, 192). Nonetheless, the council remained under the control of the provincial governors. Consequently, the council remained at best “a body of limited effectiveness” (Neher 1970b, 10).

Despite these constraints, provincial councils gradually expanded their provincial powers. Because of their role in approving and allocating infrastructure development budgets for roads, bridges, dams, schools, public offices, and the like, the positions of provincial councilors became attractive to businesspeople involved in construction. Their power increased during the 1980s when the government of General Prem Tinsulanond (1980–88) replaced a tambon development fund with a provincial development fund and allowed provincial members of Parliament (MPs) to control its use (Pasuk and Baker 1995, 347). By the 1990s, the provincial councils had become widely dubbed “contractor councils” (saphaa phuu rap mao). Working in tandem with the provincial government and disbursing funds to tambon councils, these provincial representatives formed bridges with kamnan and village heads. Provincial councilors came to play increasingly important roles in national political elections, with present and prospective MPs bankrolling the campaigns of provincial council candidates on the understanding that provincial councilors will mobilize the lower-level networks on their behalf” (Arghiros 2001, 25). Extra-bureaucratic networks were growing.

Parliament: Building Support

Parliament was also founded after the 1932 coup. Although the original promoters of the coup called themselves the Peoples Party, the first Parliament was entirely appointed (Thawatt 1972, 11926). Several times during the 1930s, the question of political parties was raised in the national assembly, and each time the government opposed them (Wilson1962, 234; Murashima, Nakarin, and Somkiat 1991). According to various interviews that I have conducted, early candidates based their support on their personal roles in developing irrigation systems, providing free legal advice, and the like. Although the first law allowing the registration of political parties was only passed in1955, fledgling political parties formed for the first time in the aftermath of World War II (Riggs 1966, 16276). However, with the exception of the Communist Party of Thailand, the parties had no established bases in the countryside. Repeated military coups hindered party development, as following coups, parties were ultimately dissolved, their assets confiscated, and their organizations dismantled (Ockey 2004, 24; see also Suchit 1987). Without a stable national organization and with only short periods of time to organize before the elections, the parties depended heavily on the bureaucracy to mobilize voters. Prior to 1975, each election had been won by a government party that, by using the bureaucracy, had a ready-made organization and adequate financial support (Ockey 2004, 24).29

However, this pattern of bureaucratic domination began to change in the 1970s. The military ruled Thailand from 1958 to 1973. On October 14, 1973, a popular uprising overthrew the military dictatorship, marking “the first time in modern Thai political history that a military regime had been toppled by extra-bureaucratic forces with mass support” (Suchit 1987, 50–51). This period saw a rapid explosion of new forces in civil society, such as student organizations, labor unions, and farmer groups (Bowie 1997; Girling 1981; Morell and Chai-anan 1981; Prudhisan 1987). Under the new constitution, all candidates for election had to belong to a political party. With the military expelled from office, for the first time, there was no government party mobilizing the Ministry of Interior to deliver rural votes (Anderson 1996, 18). As a result, the elections of 1975 were highly competitive; forty-two political parties fielded candidates (Morell and Chaianan 1981, 112). However, the challenges of managing shifting party coalitions and a society undergoing rapid polarization proved complex. The military staged another coup on October 6, 1976.

Military rule notwithstanding, capitalist expansion continued apace. Beginning in the 1960s, Thailand had embarked on a course of industrialization. Although formerly only “able to expand their economic activities successfully by cooperating with the Thai patrimonial ruling class” (Prudhisan 1987, 115), business became increasingly independent. The growing role of capital was reflected in the 1975 election results: Just over one-third (37 percent) of the newly elected MPs were businessmen; only 12 percent were bureaucrats (Morell and Chai-anan1981, 115). Businessmen won a majority of seats in subsequent elections held in 1983 and 1986; by 1988, two-thirds of MPs were businessmen (Pasuk and Baker 1995, 338–39, 349). Significantly, in each successive election, a growing number represented provincial business interests (Pasuk and Baker 1995, 344–49).

In August 1988, power passed on to Chartchai Choonhavan (1988–91). With his plan to turn the battlefields of Indochina into marketplaces, business thrived. Between 1980 and 1991, the annual export growth of Thailand averaged 13.2 percent, exceeding even that of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Foreign investment soared. By 1991, Thailand had become the twenty-fifth-largest exporter in the world (Anek 1993, 113). With a cabinet overwhelmingly composed of businessmen, the Chartchai government was involved in major projects “to expand telephone systems, improve upcountry highways, extend Bangkok’s expressway, build mass transit systems, launch telecommunication satellites, expand electricity generation through dams and power stations, and complete the massive Eastern Seaboard development zone” (Pasuk and Baker 1995, 353). Justifying their coup on growing rumors of corruption, the military, led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon, ousted the Chartchai government on February 23, 1991. In the ensuing period of instability, new elections for Parliament were held on March 22, 1992, and again on September 13, 1992.

Thus, at the time of the 1995 elections that I observed, parliamentary elections were occurring with growing frequency. Over the course of the 1980s, vote buying in parliamentary elections had become increasingly widespread. (Vote buying in national elections is often dated to a fiercely contested by-election between General Kriangsak Chamanan and Bunlert Lertpreecha in Roi-et in 1981. It has also been dated to 1979 electoral legislation that banned candidates from showing films and other such low-cost forms of entertainment at election rallies). First-time candidates bought votes in their effort to displace existing MPs, while already elected MPs used new parliamentary development funds, large state development budgets, and provincial development funds to safeguard votes in future elections. Between the national elections of 1988 and 1996, vote buying was estimated to have increased tenfold, from some 10 billion baht to 100 billion baht (about US$400 million to US$4 billion; see Ockey 2000, 87). From the perspective of villagers, there was often little apparent difference among candidates or party platforms. With money flowing, kamnan were widely considered “the most important link in the chain” (Ockey 2004, 29; see also Callahan and McCargo1996; Murray 1996, 89, 223). For village leaders, the times seemed particularly promising.

The Case of the 1995 Local Election

The growing allure of holding village office combined with the legal reforms of 1992 and 1994 to create a new political dynamic. As elsewhere, although vote buying had come to characterize national elections, elections for village head and kamnan in Tambon Thungnaa had never been particularly fraught and had never involved buying votes from villagers. In elections for village head, villagers had generally reached a consensus before the formal vote was taken. Of the four kamnan who had served over the earlier five decades, three had been chosen under the original law of 1914 in which headmen chose among themselves. No one whom I interviewed recalled any particular controversy; it was a foregone conclusion that the kamnan would come from Baan Dong Village, as it was the largest village in the tambon, had the only regular morning market, and was relatively centrally located. The fourth kamnan was the first to be elected by popular vote in 1986, as stipulated under the 1972 law. Campaigning was minimal. The three candidates at that time had a few posters made, and their supporters drove a few trucks blaring out their poll numbers from loudspeakers through the tambon on the day before the election. Like the earlier three kamnan, the winning candidate lived in Baan Dong Village, came from a wealthy landowning family with a wide kinship network, headed a branch of the irrigation system, and had served as deputy kamnan. His two opponents both came from smaller villages and were considered young and inexperienced; their combined votes were far less than the votes of the winner.

The election that I observed in 1995, triggered by the mandatory retirement of the last kamnan when he reached age sixty, marked a dramatic departure. Resignations of kamnan involve two successive elections; the first is an election for a new village head, because kamnan serve as heads in their village of residence, and the second is a tambon-wide election for kamnan, in which only village heads are eligible candidates. Discussions had been under way in Baan Dong Village and in other villages in Tambon Thungnaa as to the retiring kamnan’s possible successors. With an eye to the kamnanship, Baan Dong villagers quickly reached an internal consensus to formally elect Kaew as their new village head; he ran without opposition. Although he was only of somewhat above-average wealth, he was known throughout the tambon because he had served as deputy kamnan for some ten years, his father had headed the very successful district agricultural cooperative, and his brother was a respected police officer. In addition to newly elected Headman Kaew, there were two other candidates: Headman Kham and Headman Ngen. All three candidates were in their early forties; of the three, Headman Kaew had the most formal education. Headman Kham’s campaign was the least serious of the three, as he had just been elected village head a few months earlier (replacing his father), had little prior public service experience, and represented only the third-largest village in the tambon; he explained to me that he was primarily running to position himself for future political developments.

Representing only the fourth-largest village, Headman Ngen was the major contender, and he ultimately won the election. He had been village head since 1985, but he was not well liked. He had run unsuccessfully for kamnan in 1986, and since then, his own villagers had twice mounted recall efforts. The first was prompted when he got into a fistfight and the second by a conflict over the management of a village rice bank. Unlike the first attempt, the second recall effort garnered the necessary number of signatures in his village, but it died when the then kamnan refused to forward the matter to the district office as required; hence Ngen remained as village head. Over time, Headman Ngen had become increasingly wealthy from his road construction business and had made it widely known that he planned to win this election. When the three village heads went to the district office to formally register their candidacy, Headman Ngen had already arranged for the housewives’ associations from eight villages in the tambon to present him with garlands of flowers. However, the campaign that began with beautiful, sweet-scented flowers quickly became ugly.

Term Limits: Creating the Grandfathered Coalition

Accustomed to the old days when village heads chose their own kamnan, the heads of the twelve villages had held private discussions about the kamnanship. Eight, including Headman Ngen, had been elected under the pre-1992 laws; grandfathered, they could remain in office until they reached age sixty. The other four heads, including the two other candidates, were elected after the 1992 law went into effect and would only serve the limited five-year term. The seven senior headmen had developed a close relationship with Headmen Ngen while working in the tambon council and had benefited from their participation in his road construction business. Headman Ngen had laid the groundwork for his campaign in advance, ensuring the gratitude of these village headmen by providing them with truckloads of free dirt for their village’s roads, walkie-talkie radios, and interest-free loans, the last two to be returned or repaid only if he lost. Consequently, the eight village headmen quickly formed a coalition against the four junior upstarts. The eight village housewives’ associations that brought flower garlands for Headman Ngen on registration day marked the first formal appearance of this faction.

The coalition, which included the interim kamnan, was unabashed in announcing its choice for kamnan and made no pretense of being neutral. The group organized two campaign rallies for Headman Ngen; one rally was conveniently timed to coincide with a Boi Luang temple festival being held in the village of the acting kamnan, and the second rally was held in a village headed up by a cousin of Headman Ngen. Although the tambon council had never met as a body to vote on this issue, the acting kamnan presented these two rallies as neutral forums organized in the name of the tambon council. There was a sizeable audience at the temple festival; the second rally drew only a small crowd of some fifty people. At each rally, Headman Ngen, garlanded in flower leis provided by the housewives’ association of the hosting village, was surrounded by the other seven headmen holding their new walkie-talkies. With the acting kamnan serving as master of ceremonies, each of the village heads in the coalition gave brief speeches announcing their support for Headman Ngen. Headmen Kaew and Kham were not present. Although they had been sent initial letters of invitation, they never received any subsequent information regarding date, time, or format.

Headmen Kaew and Kham, together with their supporters, debated how to handle these de facto rallies. Before the first rally was held, Headman Kaew had gone to the district office to ask whether it was legal for village headmen to campaign or whether they should remain neutral. The district official involved replied that as long as the headmen were not attacking the other candidates, there was nothing wrong with them campaigning for the candidate of their choice. The prevailing view among Headman Kaew’s supporters was that the district officials were deliberately cooperating with Headman Ngen. Given the district’s supervisory role in the budget allocation process of the local tambon council development funds (with its historical practice of all involved reaping private benefit), this interpretation was not inconceivable. Although they were upset by these two partisan rallies, both Headmen Kaew and Kham decided they would not crash the “tambon council” rallies. They both still believed they would have a neutral venue for their campaigns in the public forums that the Pollwatch committee intended to organize.

Comprising a loose coalition of nongovernmental organizations, trade unionists, and academics, Pollwatch was a national effort to monitor vote buying and other election irregularities that was founded in January 1992 under the Anan government (for more on Pollwatch, see Murray 1996, 91–98, 215–21; Callahan 1998, 117–30; 2000; Callahan and McCargo 1996). The head of the local district Pollwatch affiliate announced its plans to hold several neutral forums for all three candidates to speak. The acting kamnan had initially told the head of the Pollwatch committee that he would support such forums. However, as the first date neared, the Pollwatch organizer still had no venue. The acting kamnan refused to allow his village to be used, and the other headmen assumed a similar position. Headmen Kham and Kaew were asked about their villages, but each felt that it was unfair unless forums were held in each village fielding a candidate. The problem was suddenly solved when another village head, the cousin of Headman Ngen who had also hosted the “tambon council” rally, agreed to allow his village to be used as the venue. Because this village was centrally located, the Pollwatch committee decided that rather than hold multiple events, it would only hold one large forum. The Pollwatch organizers went ahead with the other details of arranging the program. Each candidate was to speak for no more than twenty minutes; an outside moderator would be invited from Chiang Mai. The details were confirmed with the participants the night before.

However, the coalition also managed to successfully thwart the Pollwatch event. On the day of the forum, the host village head informed the head of the Pollwatch committee that he had changed his mind and did not want the forum to take place in his village. He said that he feared there could be violence, and as village headman, he was responsible for maintaining law and order (he had no such fears when the “tambon council” rally had been held in his village). Stunned, the head of the Pollwatch committee went to the district office to consult with district officials. The district official involved said that he was personally opposed to holding public forums because it was turning the office of kamnan from one of administration into one of politics. He sympathized with the host village head’s concern, explaining that village heads are “owners of the village” (chawkhong sathaanthii) and reiterating their responsibility for maintaining law and order (mii naathii raksaa khwaamsangop). He had no objection to the Pollwatch committee’s request for police assistance with peace-keeping efforts. However, he said that if a village headman fears he cannot maintain law and order, he has the right to prohibit an event. The Pollwatch committee arranged for a delegation of some ten police to be sent to the village in question. However, the village headman still refused to give permission for the forum to proceed. Consequently, at the last minute, the event fell through.

Not only did the coalition effectively block access to public campaign forums to Headmen Kham and Kaew, they also closed their individual villages off (pid muubaan) to private campaign initiatives. Seeking alternative avenues of access, supporters of Headmen Kham and Kaew had tried to turn to their respective networks of friends and relatives living in other villages, asking them to let their houses be used for campaign meetings. Such requests put their friends and relatives in a very awkward position. In one such case, supporters of Headman Kaew asked to use the home of a villager who had been born in Headman Kaew’s village but had married into a “gang of eight” village. He still returned every day to Baan Dong to sell pork at the morning market. Initially the pork seller agreed, but then the headman informed him through the seller’s wife’s family that if he allowed this meeting, the village headman would no longer guarantee his continued safety and happiness in the village. But once he called the meeting off, people in his natal village began to boycott his pork (see Bowie 2008). In another case, a village head agreed to arrange a meeting of villagers to hear Headman Kaew’s ideas. But when Headman Kaew and his supporters arrived at the headman’s house, there was no one there. In another village, the headman refused to allow Headmen Kaew’s campaign workers to announce a meeting over the village public address system. He apologized to the workers, explaining that Headman Ngen had loaned him money, so he did not dare go against Ngen. When pressed, he radioed Headman Ngen, who told him not to allow them to hold the campaign meeting.

Fund-Raising: New Links with Outside Politicians

Campaign expenses had not been an issue in previous elections in Tambon Thungnaa; the only significant expense had been the victory celebration, which cost a few thousand baht, depending on the amount (and quality) of liquor served. The costs for the 1995 election were of an entirely different magnitude, running in the tens and hundreds of thousands of baht. Food and liquor were major expenses. In the past, the winner had hosted a victory celebration; now campaign workers needed to be fed throughout the month long period leading up to the election. In addition, candidates had posters and leaflets made; they hired professionals to make tapes to broadcast from loudspeakers affixed to the back of trucks. Headman Ngen could afford to hire advertising trucks; the other two candidates relied on supporters donating trucks, drivers, and gas. With as many as forty vehicles driving through the tambon on a single day in support of each candidate, the amount spent on gas alone was considerable. Headman Kaew estimated that he spent about 100,000 baht on the campaign; Headman Kham spent about 60,000 baht; Headman Ngen spent at least 400,000 baht, much of which went to unabashed vote buying. (My figures for Headmen Kaew and Kham are based on estimates provided by the candidates themselves and members of their campaign committees. The figure for Headman Ngen comes from estimates provided by Headman Ngen’s wife and other family members.) Because Headmen Kham and Kaew were both newly elected headmen, they would only be able to serve five years. Neither bought votes, both because they believed it was unethical and because neither could afford to make the same kind of investment as a candidate with some two decades remaining in office. (Vote buying is difficult to prove, and allegations are often the result of efforts by some villagers to slander others. My confidence that Headman Ngen bought votes is based on several factors. First is the sheer number of detailed rumors that worked their way through village kinship networks back to various members of Headmen Kaew and Kham’s campaign committees. Furthermore, both Kaew and Kham were approached by members of Headman Ngen’s committee with offers to buy their withdrawals. In addition, one village headman met with Kaew, noting how much Headman Ngen was prepared to pay for votes from his village and offering to sell these votes to Headman Kaew for a higher price, Kaew refused).

With campaign costs running so high, fund-raising became a major issue for the first time. However, there were no laws governing fund-raising. Candidates had always been expected to cover their own minimal campaign expenses in the past; this election marked the first time candidates looked outside the tambon for assistance. Headman Ngen had become wealthy in his position as village headman, using his access to government infrastructure budgets to develop a road construction business. In addition to his own substantial personal means, he received considerable financial support from two MPs, several provincial assembly representatives, and others involved in construction. One single donor allegedly gave 90,000 baht. Headman Ngen’s access to national and provincial politicians was enhanced by the fact that, if elected, he could legally remain in office for nearly two more decades. These politicians appeared to be more inclined to “invest” in a candidate who was likely to remain in power longer; the fewer the number of future elections, the more money they would save.

Headman Kham was the least aggressive fund-raiser. He relied almost entirely on personal funds, although he did receive small contributions from one MP and one provincial assembly member (he said that he did not solicit further funds from other politicians because he did not want to become indebted to more people than he would be able to repay at election time with votes from his village). Headman Kham never thought to ask his fellow villagers to help defray his campaign expenses. He told me that he just felt grateful that so many of them had helped with their time and labor.

Inventing Tradition: Old Rituals in a New Context

Headman Kaew initially assumed that he would be footing the bill for his campaign in large measure from his share of his family inheritance. However, Headman Kaew also had an extremely committed campaign committee comprising the leading members of the temple, school, and other such internal village committees. Using their various external connections, they contacted national and provincial representatives with long-standing relations with Baan Dong, as well as several merchants and a local banker. Through these external contacts, they raised more than 50,000 baht. The largest single donation10,000 baht came from an MP. However, it soon became clear that this amount was not enough.

As the campaign escalated and as rumors of Headman Ngen’s vote-buying tactics were substantiated, Headman Kaew’s committee made an unprecedented proposal: to raise money from fellow villagers. Because the election period coincided with the traditional New Year’s celebration, villagers enthusiastically agreed to transform the traditional dam hua, or paying respects to the village headmen ceremony, into an election fund-raiser. Rather than the customary symbolic offerings of sweets and flowers, villagers decided to contribute food to help provide daily meals for Headman Kaew’s campaign workers. It was a festive but poignant occasion. Villagers arrived by the hundreds, carrying ritual trays bearing rice, onions, and other food staples. The older generation wore white shawls over their shoulders, and many women had flowers in their hair. The ceremony began with the head of the temple committee commenting that although Headman Kaew was younger than many other villagers, “he is the father of us all and we wish him well in his work on our behalf.” Led by the temple head, three former kamnan who resided in Baan Dong and the heads of the seven village temple subgroups, villagers came up to pour water on the hands of Kaew and his wife. As the throng of villagers reached its peak, Headman Kaew was asked to make a speech. With his wife at his side, he stood to speak. But tears welled in his eyes, and despite several attempts, words failed him. Emotions were palpable when Kaew’s father expressed his son’s gratitude on his behalf.

After the election, spurred by sympathy for Headman Kaew and a desire to rally his morale after his loss, Baan Dong villagers decided to organize another village-wide fund-raiser to defray the remaining costs. Headman Kaew had begun building a new house, but he had been too busy with the campaign to finish it. Upon the completion of a new home, home owners generally sponsor a housewarming party (khyyn baan mai). Villagers decided not only to help him finish his house but also to hold a village-wide combination of a special life lengthening ritual (syyb chataa) and a traditional housewarming ceremony for him. Virtually every household contributed both labor and money. In addition to raising more than 20,000 baht to cover the cost of the ceremony, villagers donated an additional 25,000 baht to defray Headman Kaew’s election debt. These were substantial sums, especially considering that the temple committee had been having trouble raising more than a few thousand baht for its fund and village wages at the time were 40–100 baht per day. As a result, although his campaign cost about 100,000 baht, Headman Kaew was only out of pocket some 10,000–20,000 baht.

Vote Buying

With large government budgets at stake and so much invested, vote buying became a major factor in the election campaign. Although both communal and individual vote buying had been occurring with growing frequency in national elections, this election marked its first appearance in a village-level election in this region. The variety of forms of vote buying attests to a certain distorted form of inventiveness. Ngen made donations to the seven village headmen and their respective village housewives’ groups. His campaign workers gave special contributions to the village elderly, seeking to gain the support of their children and grandchildren. In less subtle forms, villagers sold their right to vote (noon thap sit, “sleep on their right”) by surrendering their identification cards; the cards were returned to their owners after the polls closed. Another variation took advantage of villagers’ penchant for playing local lotteries. In this form, representatives of Headman Ngen bet against their own candidate, offering 3:1 odds in favor of Headman Kaew. Hence, if Headman Ngen should win, they would be paid 300 baht for every 100 baht they gambled. Thus, individual villagers who took the bet had a personal reason to vote in favor of Headman Ngen. The average vote sold for about 100 baht. Village agents received an extra fee, which was to be returned if their village failed to meet its allotted quota. Thus, the system of vote buying allowed the vote buyer to minimize his expenses in the event of his election defeat.

In Tambon Thungnaa, more than 75 percent of some 5,000 registered voters cast ballots. Polling hours were from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Consequently, many who worked construction jobs, a primary source of income for many villagers, sacrificed the day’s wages to stay home and vote. Villagers who lived elsewhere returned home to vote. Headman Ngen won the election by 257 votes: 1,710 to Headman Kaew’s 1,453 votes. Headman Kham’s campaign only succeeded in garnering 480 votes, 402 in his own village. About 90 percent of Baan Dong’s eligible voters turned out to vote, and they voted overwhelmingly for Kaew (916:36:2). The final vote tally revealed that Kaew’s campaign had not been to penetrate the eight villages aligned with Headman Ngen; the coalition had proved an effective bloc. Although vote buying was also a contributing factor, assessing the impact of vote buying is not easy. Many villagers took the money but voted as they wished. In one village where Ngen was said to have targeted 300 votes and spent a considerable amount of money (nine buyers with 5,000 baht each), he only got half that many votes. Nonetheless, given how close the vote was, money only needed to provide Headman Ngen with some 250 votes in order to have an impact.

The Aftermath

Headman Ngens victory was met by intense outrage among Headman Kaews supporters. When word of their defeat came, many burst into tears. Sorrow mixed with anger. There were no established patterns for coping with election defeat, as former elections had never generated such intense involvement. An impromptu gathering formed over at Headman Ngens home, and village leaders decided to call a meeting for the following day. Villagers denounced vote sellers as lower than dogs: a dog sold for 200300 baht, but these people had sold their votes for as little as 100 baht. As villagers repeatedly said,


If it lands on a vagina, the vagina opens
If it lands on grass, the grass dies
If it lands on a buffalo, it becomes chopped meat (laap).

At the formal village meeting, proposals were made to punish the pork seller and other individual villagers who were accused of having betrayed the village by taking bribes or refusing to assist with Headman Kaew’s campaign; these proposals received impassioned support (see Bowie 2008). Bitterly condemning the power of money, villagers repeatedly commented that they could have accepted defeat had the campaign been conducted fairly. The meeting concluded with a unanimous decision to send a delegation led by Headman Kaew to pay a visit to the MP who had helped them during the campaign. As it was the time of the New Year celebrations, they planned to use their visit to both offer their traditional New Year respects (dam hua) and to ask him whether they could press for a new election.

The next day, the village delegation met with the MP and laid out their grievances. The MP told them they could try to file a complaint, but it was extremely unlikely that their complaint would come to anything. He told them of two cases of corruption and vote fraud in which he had been involved; in neither case did the governor call for new elections. He explained that the present laws were vague and basically left such matters to the discretion of the governor. He also cautioned the delegation to think through the consequences of a failed complaint for their headman’s relations with others in the tambon council.

Although the villagers came home discouraged, they continued to discuss alternatives. Some argued they should mount a recall campaign and have Ngen expelled from office; others countered that he had survived two such campaigns already. Others wanted the Pollwatch organization to pursue charges. Subsequent meetings with members of Pollwatch revealed their difficulties in trying to appeal election results. First of all, vote buying was hard to document. Furthermore, Pollwatch had no particular legal standing and, at best, could only inform the Ministry of Interior of a problem (see Callahan1998; Murray 1996). In addition, the Local Administrative Act of 1914, even as amended in 1943, did not address the issue of election appeals. In 1992, the Ministry of Interior issued a regulation governing elections of village heads in which it is mentioned that candidates or voters with complaints can file them with the provincial governor within fifteen days of the election; however, the regulation specifies neither the criteria for complaints nor a time frame by which the governor must respond. No law addressed how to appeal an election for kamnan.

Because vote buying is hard to document, villagers believed they could more easily document the partisan role of the headmen in the coalition who had actively campaigned for Headman Ngen in the name of the tambon council, closed their villages to public campaign meetings, and sabotaged the Pollwatch forum. However, subsequent investigation revealed that the laws were ambiguous regarding the right of village headmen to prohibit public assembly. Although the 1914 law does not state that village heads are the “owners” of the village (chawkhong sathanthii), it does describe them as the “heads” (huanaa). The law does state that they are responsible for maintaining the peace, but it also suggests they should serve the public good. National laws are clear that government officials are not supposed to engage in politics; however, the 1914 act states that kamnan and village heads are not classified as government officials. An order issued on January 9, 1984, from the Department of Local Administration states that election officials “must remain neutral and should do nothing that would allow the population to see that they supported or sympathized with any given candidate for kamnan or headman” (M.T. 0409/W.12). However, it is unclear whether village headmen and the acting kamnan are defined as “election officials.” Given the lack of clarity, there is room for the personal opinions of the district officials to come into play. Furthermore, there is no stated punishment or recourse if the order is considered to have been violated.

As legal options closed, more villagers thought matters should be allowed to settle. Nervously, villagers began to return to the never-ending succession of village funerals, housewarmings, weddings, and temple festivals that crosscut each other’s villages (see Bowie 2008). Many villagers argued that it was important to heal the rift so that Headman Kaew would be able to work with the new kamnan to bring development budgets to Baan Dong. Some Baan Dong villagers hoped that Kamnan Ngen would appoint Headman Kaew as his deputy. However, Kamnan Ngen made no effort to appease Baan Dong feelings; instead he appointed the man who had been acting kamnan and his main campaign organizer as deputy kamnan. Adding insult to injury, he encouraged a plan to divide Baan Dong village into two smaller villages as a way to break its strength (this plan failed when Headman Kaew appointed the leader of this internal faction as his assistant; see Bowie 2008). A few weeks later, one of Kamnan Ngen’s main opponents in his own village was murdered assassination style by two men on motorcycles. With tension remaining high, Kamnan Ngen had to postpone his victory celebration.

Having no immediate recourse, villagers came up with a new long-term strategy to assuage their anger. Because they now had little hope for fair budget allotments through the tambon council, they resolved to work closely with candidates for national election in order to gain access to the budgets available to MPs. Before, individual villagers had worked as canvassers (hua khanaen) for different candidates. As one villager explained to me,

“In the past, we were huanaa khanaen for different MPs in the village, each pursuing our own private interests with the money we got. Now we will work together and put all that money into a common village fund.”

Working together to sell their votes as a unified village block, they argued, would buttress Headman Kaew’s bargaining position with prospective candidates. They planned to back different candidates than those Kamnan Ngen was supporting. In addition to financial resources, they hoped that by getting “their” candidate into Parliament, they would finally have sufficient political leverage to force the local police to press murder charges against Kamnan Ngen and thereby force him out of office.

Thus, anger at vote buying in a local election was ultimately transformed into a new strategy for vote selling in a national election. When national elections were announced for July 1995, a village delegation met with the candidates to negotiate. The candidates’ offers were discussed at a village meeting. (Villagers factored in candidates’ previous assistance and a balance of party affiliation. Three candidates from three different parties offered 30,000, 100,000, and 120,000 baht, respectively, as donations to the village temple fund. The first choice would have received the villagers’ vote even without his token donation, as he was a long-term MP who had helped settle a major dispute over an irrigation system. At the village meeting, villagers proposed to expel any defectors from the funeral society. The abbot asked the sacred forces to curse whoever broke this village promise and vowed that village monks would not perform funeral services for traitors. On election day, Baan Dong produced more than 1,000 votes, well over the 700 block votes they had promised the candidates. Another nearby village also engaged in bloc voting.) Agreeing to use the pooled monies for a new temple building, Baan Dong villagers agreed to cast their votes as a unified block for the first time. When their candidates for Parliament lost, Baan Dong villagers were forced to bide their time. In 2001, the newly formed Thai Rak Thai fielded many new, untried candidates throughout the country. Frustrated by existing candidates and excited by the party’s populist policies, Baan Dong villagers gave their wholehearted support to the new Thai Rak Thai candidate in their area, thereby contributing to the party’s unprecedented victories in the national elections in 2001 and 2004. Baan Dong Villagers finally got their revenge.

Tambon Thungnaa has had several local elections since 1995, and all have been relatively smooth. Today, Kamnan Ngen and a few of the “old guard” village heads remain in office. Nonetheless, although remaining the honored guests at funerals and other ritual events, he and the other village heads have been sidelined by the flows of national politics. When Kamnan Ngen’s ex officio term as TAO head expired, Headman Kaew resigned as village head and was elected to serve in the TAO. Kaew was then elected uneventfully by his fellow TAO members to serve as chair. According to the most recent amendment to the 1994 act, TAO chairs are now no longer elected by an internal vote of fellow members but by a direct tambon-wide vote. In addition, ballots are now collected and counted at a central location in an effort to reduce the efficacy of vote buying and to make it more difficult to monitor how individuals and villages vote.

In July 2005, I observed the first TAO elections in Tambon Thungnaa under these latest provisions. Elections were held for both TAO chair and for the two representatives from each village. Of the nine candidates running for the two Baan Dong Village seats, only one was rumored to have bought votes; he was seeking a second term in the council but only came in fourth. In the tambon-wide election for TAO chair, Kaew ran against two other candidates; he won by an overwhelming majority (more than 2,000 votes to the nearest candidate’s some 700 votes). Only one candidate was rumored to have bought votes; he came in last. Kaew won primarily because of the widespread view that he has divided TAO budgets fairly among village projects and has not diverted TAO funds for personal gain. He also benefited from his ties with the MP, a member of the Thai Rak Thai party. However, signs of new factional alignments are emerging within Baan Dong village. Upset with what they see as Kaew’s arrogance, as he seems to spend more time with the MPs than with them, and upset villagers by his refusal to take action against a monk widely rumored to be both sexually active and corrupt, one faction voted for one of Kaew’s opponents. Had the coup not taken place in 2006, this faction’s discontent likely would have benefited the candidate running against the Thai Rak Thai MP in the next national election.


Thailand’s most recent military coup took place on September 19, 2006. Polls taken at the time showed that as much as three-quarters of Thailand’s urban population supported the coup. Nonetheless, the coup was blamed on rural vote buying, scholars denouncing Thailand’s “Electocracy” (Kasian 2006), and editorials suggesting that democracy had failed once again because “many rural voters seem to look upon their ballots as a source of immediate reward” (Kavi 2006). These justifications of the coup repeat the long-standing essentialized and ahistorical images of villagers as “lacking experience in political participation” (Nakata 1987, 182), as “politically immature” (Nelson 1998, 11), or as politically ignorant and in need of education (Suchit 1996, 200). Although villagers make up the majority of Thailand’s population, their votes in favor of the populist policies of the Thai Rak Thai party were construed as “the tyranny of the rural majority” (see Kasian 2006, 15 for discussion). Rather than understood in the context of a shared national history, the dearth of scholarly studies of village politics has allowed the complexity of the challenges facing efforts to advance democracy in Thailand to be reduced to a simple divide between ignorant rural and informed urban voters.

This essay has shown that, far from being politically immature or uneducated, villagers are involved and informed participants in electoral politics. Very conscious of the new possibilities set in motion by the legal reforms of 1992 and 1994, villagers in Tambon Thungnaa lost no time in combining new democratic laws, old feudal laws, traditional rituals, invented rituals, outside politicians, district officials, and new nongovernmental organization networks in their internal electoral campaigns. In the process, democratic expectations that candidates should have a protected right to campaign clashed with feudal laws which established cultural definitions of village heads as “owners” of their villages. With no requirement to guarantee a public venue, village heads were allowed to close their village, forbid campaigning, and inhibit freedom of assembly. These feudal conceptions of village leaders have shaped the dynamics of broader electoral politics as well. The oft-noted role of kamnan and village heads as brokers in provincial- and national-level elections has largely depended on their construction as gatekeepers controlling access to “their” villagers. While legal reforms made in the context of rapid capitalist development contributed to an escalation of vote buying at all levels of electoral politics, existing laws lacked provisions for meaningful appeals of ensuing grievances, thereby impeding villagers’ ability to protest vote buying and safeguard their internal democracy. Legal ambiguities and legal lacunae, not rural apathy or ignorance, rendered village outrage mute.

Prevailing explanations of village vote buying range from a portrayal of villagers as embedded in a simple, rational capitalist calculation of selling their votes to the highest bidder to a portrayal of villagers as mired in a traditional moral economy of exchanging votes for gifts and hopes of protection. However, my anthropological case study of a village election suggests that these explanations suffer from five major flaws. First, these portrayals are ahistorical; failing to recognize that vote buying has not typified village electoral politics but rather has emerged in particular historical contexts. Second, these descriptions do not recognize the very different dynamics that characterize electoral politics at the village, tambon, provincial, and national levels; the more local the election, the more vote buying threatens village preferences for unanimity and anonymity. Third, such portrayals fail to recognize the dynamism of village politics, ignoring the complex and ever-shifting calculus by which village support for various candidates changes. Fourth, by failing to include a historical perspective, the explanations have minimized the importance in variations in patterns of vote buying; offering free pencils and free legal advice is different from bribing government officials, making private payments to individual villagers, or negotiating with a village community regarding proposed development projects. Finally, these characterizations fail to recognize how lacunae and ambiguities in the overall development of the national legal and administrative framework have complicated villagers’ efforts to protect democratic practices.

In Ancient Law, Sir Henry Maine wrote that in understanding the historical origins of laws, we must consider “the nature of their dependence on those which preceded them” (1861, 113). Viewing village electoral politics from a historical perspective, this essay has argued that the heightened conflict which characterized village electoral politics during the period from 1995 to 1999 resulted from the clash of newer, more democratic laws that were intended to decentralize power with older laws dating from the days of absolute monarchy that were intended to centralize power. In the days of the Ramayana epic, Hanuman served as a bridge for King Rama to cross as he sought to free his wife from the evil demon. The village Hanumans, from their conceptualization during the reign of King Rama V, have served as bridges between the state and the village, between a centralized bureaucracy and a kin-based democracy. Over the course of the twentieth century, these village leaders served a wide variety of politicians, ranging from aristocrats to commoners, from generals to civilians, and from dictators to democrats. By century’s end, the village Hanumans were fading, and a new dynamic in the integration of villagers into electoral politics was arising. How Thailand’s latest military coup will affect the ever-shifting patterns of national centralization and local decentralization remains to be seen. As Thailand’s political processes transmogrify in ways unimaginable in epic myths, it is clear that the earthly realm is far more complex than the mythic.



The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Narong and Kongchan Mahakhom, Phraphan Munprakaan, Thanet Charoenmuang, Nongyao Nawalat, Palat Amnaat, Sarayuth Kaewphongthong, Gothom Ariya, Nalinee Tantuvanit, Patcharin Lapanun, Somphant Techa-atik, Mongkol Dandhanin, Sombat Chantornvong, Somjai Viriyabanditkul, Buntham Phikunsri, Tanachak Kamoln, John Davis, Gay Seidman, Larry Ashmun, Paul Hutchcroft, Thongchai Winichakul, Megan Sinnott, Yukti Mukdawijitra, Ester Sweeney, Janet Murphy, Walter and Gertrud Bowie, many friends and colleagues in Tambon Thungnaa, Duncan McCargo, and the anonymous reviewers of this essay.


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WALES, H. G. QUARITCH. 1934. Ancient Siamese Government and Administration. New York: Paragon Book Reprints, 1965.

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Standing in the shadows:

Of matrilocality and the role of women in a village election in northern Thailand

Katherine A. Bowie

University of Wisconsin

Published in American Ethnologist         Volume 35 Number      February 1st 2008


In this article, I analyze a village election in Thailand to show how anthropological insights into kinship systems can provide important avenues into understanding the gender dynamics of electoral politics. Because few women hold public office in Thailand, Thai politics has been considered a male domain. Exploring four social dramas in which conflicts made the hidden role of women visible, I argue that the public domain of electoral politics in rural Thailand is embedded within village practices of matrilocality and matrilineal kinship. [politics, elections, public sphere, women, matrilocality, matrilineages, Thailand]

Anthropologists, their emphases shaped by earlier interests in stateless societies and by the prevalence of colonial forms of indirect rule, have paid remarkably little attention to electoral politics.1 Because men often hold elected office and because women have long been denied suffrage in many countries, the arena of formal electoral politics is “typically presumed to be an exclusively male sphere, with women regarded as ‘private’ actors confined to homes and charitable associations” (Skocpol 1992:30). Feminist anthropology has gradually undermined the simple dichotomy that “the world of the domestic and familial is the world of women, and that of the public and political the world of men” (Lamphere 1974:97).2 Although earlier studies illustrated the general principle that “actual methods of giving rewards, controlling information, exerting pressure, and shaping events may be available to women as well as to men” (Rosaldo 1974:21), more recent studies are revealing the fundamental role of gender in the processes of state formation.3 Thus, the field of political anthropology has come a long way from the days when political activity could be defined, without caveats or other forms of verbal flinching, as the means through which “a man achieves command over resources, or power over men, or both” (Bailey 1960:10). Nonetheless, anthropological insights have rarely been applied in the domain of formal electoral politics, allowing the public–private dichotomy to remain largely unchallenged.

In this article, I provide an analysis of a local election in Thailand to show how anthropological insights into kinship systems can provide important avenues into understanding the gender dynamics of electoral politics. Despite the recognition of the village practice of matrilocal (uxorilocal) post-marital residence among anthropologists of Thailand,4 scholars of Thai politics have repeatedly described politics as a man’s world. Under a framework developed by Thailand’s first Minister of the Interior, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab (1894–1915), rural administration was organized into villages, subdistricts, districts, and provinces. Elections for village and subdistrict heads were instituted in 1897 under the Local Administrative Act. Although this act institutionalized suffrage for women, it also stipulated that only men could serve as village heads or as subdistrict heads (kamnan). Elections for municipal, provincial, and parliamentary offices were established in subsequent decades and allowed both men and women to run for office; in 1982 the Local Administrative Act was amended to also allow women to run for village head and kamnan. Nonetheless, few women hold elected office. As of 1999, a mere 2.4 percent of village heads are women (Ockey 2004:57).5 As of 2000, women composed only 10 percent of municipal and provincial council members; in parliament women composed a mere 5.6 percent of the house and 10.5 percent of the senate (Ockey 2004:57; Tasker 2000:56; see also Supatra Masdit 1991:18). In remarking on this relative absence of women from elected office, Khunying Supatra Masdit, herself a long-standing member of parliament, comments, In our history, Thai women have not been directly involved in politics because it has been the norm that household matters are womens matters while national matters are mens matters (1991:16).6

Ignoring the fact that Thailand was one of the rst countries in the world to grant women voting rights (see Bowie n.d.),7 studies of electoral politics have had an androcentric bias. Analyses of provincial and national level elections repeatedly highlight the importance of kamnan and village heads in mobilizing village voters. Because kamnan, village heads, and household heads are generally male, men appear as the primary political actors in the prevailing narratives of electoral decision making. Although these studies recognize that kinship networks underlie the efficacy of these local leaders, their bland denitions of kinship networks as members of a family and their circle of friends and neighbors contribute to an image of women as politically irrelevant (e.g., Nelson 2005:17). This androcentric paradigm has led concerned feminists to conclude that Thai women are politically disadvantaged because the rules of the game are set up by men who dominate the political process(Juree

1997a); because women lack political networks (Nongyao 1994:128130); or because women suffer from, according to Rosa Linda Miranda, low self-esteem, a lack of condence in understanding national and global issues, and a sense of inability to communicate, lead and manage people (Doneys 2002:179; see also Thomson 1995:1123).8 Even in cases in which women are themselves candidates, scholars have suggested that women who enter politics as candidates in Thailand do so through kinship ties to men (Fishel 2001:242, also p. 177; Ockey 2004:78).

More recent studies are beginning to recognize womens involvement and challenge the conclusions that women lack political networks or management skills. Most studies of electoral politics have focused on national elections for parliament. Increasingly, these studies are beginning to make mentionat least in passingof the role of male candidates wives, mothers, and sisters in successful campaigns.9 Former prime minister Chawalit Yongchaiyut (199697) has suggested that he would probably lose an election if his wife were his rival: She is very popular among the local people. She has extended her mercy to everyone from housewives to monks (Ockey 2004:62). The mother of former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai (199295, 19972001) is widely understood to have played an inuential role in his campaign. Similarly, the election of Thailands last elected Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra (200106), owed much to the efforts of his wife and sisters. Thaksin’s sister, Yaowapha Wongsawat, was herself elected to parliament and was said to have at least 60 members of parliament in her faction (McCargo and Ukrist 2005:82). Noting that wives of members of parliament often do most of the constituency work and build up a rapport with the voters in the provinces, one parliamentarian commented that sometimes voters will even vote for an MP they dislike, because of the efforts of a wife (Ockey 2004:70).

Because these analyses of national and provincial electoral politics are not grounded in anthropological insights into kinship, politically active women appear as mere exceptions. British anthropologist Daniel Arghiros is the rst to ground a book-length study of electoral politics in village dynamics. Although gender is not the focus of his pioneering ethnography, he nonetheless provides tantalizing comments that support a radical reexamination of the prevailing paradigm and suggest that the role of womenfar from anomalousis fundamental. First, he finds that village women are keenly interested in politics (Arghiros 2001:58). Second, he notes that a male candidates female relatives play a critical role in forging links between candidates and village kinship networks, concluding that [it] would not be an exaggeration to say that at all levels candidates win because of their wives and female kinfolk (Arghiros 2001:164). Third, he recognizes the political implications of uxorilocal marriage practices, noting that, since most households are related through women (due to a heritage of uxorilocality), they play a very important part in enlisting support for their husbands (Arghiros 2001:93). Last, Arghiros draws attention to the fact that women are relatively invisible (2001:93), adding later that it is easy to miss the importance of women in electoral politics because their role is rarely public (2001:164). Thamora Fishel also notes that election studies have ignored the behind-the-scenes maneuvering where women play key roles (1997:445). If women are indeed interested in politics and such vital members in successful electoral campaigns, then why are womens political activities invisible, rarely public,orbehind-the-scenes?  

The paradox of women as both important and invisible suggests that a more complex realm of gendered politics lies hidden between the right to vote and the right to hold formal office. In 1995, I had occasion to observe an election in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai, in which three village headmen, representing the largest of the 12 villages in a subdistrict I shall call Thungnaa, competed for the position of kamnan or subdistrict head. My primary vantage point was the home of an inuential middle-aged couple who lived in a village that I shall call Baan Dong. The husband, Dii, was a respected teacher who had married uxorilocally.10 The wife, Phorn, was the daughter of a former kamnan and herself the former president of the village housewives association. Unlike previous local elections in this subdistrict in which the winner was a foregone conclusion, this election was highly contested, replete with vote buying and a murder. Long interested in agrarian politics, I was initially trying to understand the factors underlying the explosion of vote buying (see Bowie 1997, in press).

My consciousness of gender emerged as I was forced to reflect on how my relationship with villagers had changed over the course of the past 30 years. When I rst began conducting eld work as a young, single woman, I was seen as gender neutral (or, perhaps, even as an ornamental object of amusement) and had no particular difficulties in observing all-male meetings of village elders. Time and the births of my two children both feminized and personalized my relationships. Now classied as female, I realized that it had now become awkward to request to observe the generally all-male campaign planning meetings. Instead, I relied on post-meeting discussions with male participants and their female relatives to keep abreast of the fascinating, even nefarious, campaign strategies (see Bowie in press for details). Increasingly, these various discussions made me aware of both the emotional anguish the election was causing individual village families and how well-informed village women were. Ironically, I might not have developed this awareness to the same extent had I been able to attend the campaign meetings in person.

As the campaign intensified, villagers, torn by conflicting loyalties, went to seemingly absurd lengths to avoid an appearance of partisanship. The public election campaign was composed largely of candidates supporters driving trucks through the village; the vehicles were festooned with campaign banners and carried loudspeakers blaring out the names and ballot numbers of their respective candidates. Some truck owners, when approached by different candidates asking to borrow their vehicles, carefully balanced the number of days each candidate was allowed to use their truck. Other truck owners let their candidates supporters drive their vehicles but refused to drive their trucks themselves. One villager who was considered to have an especially good voice worked as an announcer for two days for his villages candidate but made sure to work one day for another candidate. A schoolteacher who lived in one candidates village but taught in the other candidates village painted signs for both campaigns. Many villagers went to visit competing candidates homes to help with campaign preparations; men drove trucks and women helped with cooking. Yet, despite their efforts to maintain an appearance of neutrality, these villagers found themselves suspected of being spies ortwo-headed birds(nok song hua) working on behalf of the other camp. The aftermath of the bitterly fought campaign was no less tense; villagers who were accused of selling their votes or betraying their villages were denounced as traitors.

Even though I knew all three candidates, my own efforts to maintain neutrality as a foreign observer failed. I found myself inexorably being identified with the politics of the village in which I was residing to the point I could no longer interview the other two candidates for a time. Seeing village friends in tears or unable to sleep at night began to make me appreciate the emotional toll of this election. Gradually, I began to understand more of the deep interpenetrations of the domestic and the political in the Thai village context. As Victor Turner notes in his discussion of social drama, conflict brings fundamental aspects of society, normally overlaid by the customs and habits of daily intercourse, into frightening prominence (1974:35).

In this article, I argue that the public domain of electoral politics in rural Thailand cannot be understood apart from the domain of women because it is embedded within village practices of matrilocality and matrilineal kinship. After summarizing the political economy of Thai village kinship and the historical changes that generated such a hard-fought election, I explore four electoral dramas that developed as the maelstrom of campaign politics swirled through Baan Dong village. These vignettes reveal the intense pressures campaign politics was placing on individuals, both men and women, on marriages, and on inter-matrilineal relations both within and across villages. Understood in the context of the political economy of Thai matrilocality, these examples reverse the prevailing interpretation of the gender dynamics of electoral politics in Thai villages. If in everyday life the men in these examples bridged across matrilines and villages, electoral conflict forced them to support candidates in their wives matrilines and villages. If in everyday life women were embedded in their own matrilines, electoral conict forced them to become actively involved in efforts to maintain harmony rst within their villages and, secondly, across villages. As the partisanship of electoral politics threatened to spin myriad matrilineal maelstroms, the normally invisible political role and concerns of women became visible. As I show, womens roles go beyond the immediate electoral goal of supporting specic candidates and address a broader goal of ensuring harmonious inter-matrilineal and inter-village relations.

Understanding the political importance of matrilocality and matrilineality

Resolving the apparent paradox of the simultaneous importance and invisibility of women in electoral politics involves an understanding of how village men and women are integrated into the political economy of Thai kinship. In Thailand, men are generally considered as the heads of Thai households; they also hold formal village offices ranging from village heads to members of the village temple committee, funeral society, or school advisory board.11 Sulamith Heins Potter notes that the assumption of the structural significance of men has made it more difficult for anthropologists to grasp the structural principles of female-centered family systems (1977:2).12 Although Thai villagers have been described by some anthropologists as neolocal, a closer reading of the literature reveals a widespread tendency in the northern, northeastern, and central regions to follow matrilocal post-marriage residence. As Phya Anuman Rajadhon (18881969), widely considered the founder of Thai anthropology, explains, it is the custom for the young man to leave the home of his parents, that is, to marry out of his own home and into his wifes home (1988:286). In the northern village she studied, Potter concluded that matrilocal residence is explicitly the ideal; it occurs in 73 percent of all marriages in the village (1977:62).13

Matrilocality ensures the maintenance of strong matrilineal bonds.14 After marriage, a new couple usually lives in the same home as part of an extended household with the wifes parents, siblings, and grandparents (most likely maternal grandparents). Over time, the couple may build their own home, residing neolocally in the wifes family compound.15 Their neighbors are most likely to be members of the wifes matriline. As one elderly villager explained, Kinship is like a banana tree that starts out with one central trunk and then gradually sends out shoots around it; even after the mother trunk has died, the clump of surrounding seedlings remains (Potter 1976:141; see also Potter 1977). Because members of the same matrilineage tend to reside near each other, each matrilineage tends to inhabit its own section of the village (Potter 1976:141). Thus, geographical divisions in a village correlate with clusters of households (a pok) related to each other primarily through a womans mother, maternal aunts, sisters, and daughters.

In northern Thailand corporate matrilineal identity is reinforced by a belief in a shared matrilineal ancestral spirit (phii puu njaa),16 which is inherited through women and into which men must marry. Women are members by virtue of matrilineal descent and never belong to more than one group.17 Even after the time when she might have had inuence in daily household decision making, the eldest woman in the matriline oversees the periodic ritual offerings to the matrilineal ancestral spirit in which spirits are asked for forgiveness for any offences committed against them and for their continuing protection (Cohen and Gehan 1984a:249; see also Potter 1977:117). The matrilineal spirit must be informed of marriages of its members. In addition, expiatory offerings are made to the ancestral spirit in cases of extra-marital sexual relations or other offences that cause dissension between members of the matriline (Cohen and Gehan 1984a:249). Offended matrilineal spirits can become witch-spirits (phii ka), which cause their descendants to become ill (Anan 1984; Cohen and Gehan 1984a:249; Davis 1984:265 266; Potter 1976:142; Potter 1977:18; Turton1972:233). Koichi Mizuno describes a similar phenomenon in northeastern Thailand, noting that if a husband fails to please his wifes parents, he is denounced by his wifes relatives, and it is said that his children will fall sick under the inuence of ancestral spirits (1968:851).

Far from an independent political actor, an uxorilocal husband is embedded in a domestic political economy in which he is often dependent on his wifes parents for his home and his access to agricultural land. Newly married couples depend on the wifes parents for ploughs, buffaloes, buffalo pens, and granaries (Mizuno 1968:846). Although many scholars have characterized Thai inheritance patterns as bi-lateral, in practice there is a tendency toward matrilateral inheritance and even a form of female ultimogeniture. As Charles Keyes notes, Agricultural land passes from a couple to their daughters and sons-in-law (1983:852; Tambiah 1970:12).18 Because the youngest daughter is usually the last to marry, she is most likely to remain with her parents to care for them in their old age; in return, she generally receives an extra portion of the parents land and is also likely to inherit the parental home (see also De Young 1966:23; Mizuno 1968:850; Potter 1977:19; Sharp and Hanks 1978:56; Tambiah 1970:13; Van Esterik 2000:188).19 Even when a young couple is able to reside neolocally, their home is usually built next door to the wifes parents home (the big house or hyan luang) and on land they provided.

Although a couple may seek assistance from the husbands natal matriline, the high percentage of uxorilocal residence means that the wifes matriline is much more likely to provide the primary kinship network through which needed labor and other resources are mobilized. Cooperative labor exchangesboth within and across matrilinesare crucial for a wide variety of undertakings, including transplanting and harvesting rice, maintaining the irrigation systems, and helping build each others houses. These relatives may be asked to provide assistance ranging from outright gifts of money in time of need, interest-free loans, and loans of buffaloes and other agricultural supplies to help with child care, schooling issues, and finding jobs in the city (e.g., Kaufman 1960:2325; Piker 1964:6263). In addition, kin groups depend on each other to share the costs of expensive ritual occasions such as New Years festivals, funerals, ordinations, and the like. The wider ones kinship network, the wider ones sources of support. Although everyday life is more likely to involve intra-village ties, ritual events draw on a wide network of inter-village bonds. Just how wide this network can be became clear to me when I was doing research for my dissertation; my Thai sister was able to mobilize contacts for me in all nine districts in which I sought to conduct interviews. The better a womans relations are across matrilines and across villages, the better her position in an agrarian-based political economy.

In addition to mobilizing labor and other resources through matrilines, village women can also exercise considerable economic control in their own right. As many observers have commented, women play a key role in village markets, both in selling and buying (Bowie 1988, 1992).20 Market trading is so much a job for women that a man in the marketplace . . . is an uncommon sight (Potter 1977:70). As De Young noted, through marketing, village women produce a sizeable portion of the family cash income, and they not only handle the household money, but usually act as the family treasurer and hold the purse strings (1966:24). Given their control over financial transactions, women also play a primary role in deciding whether or not to extend credit to relatives and fellow villagers.21 Village women are often the primary organizers of mutual credit associations in which members each contribute a fixed amount of capital; such financing facilitates a new village market venture, the expansion of the family store, a childs education, or the purchase of such items as a motorcycle, refrigerator, or television. A womans economic position is further safeguarded by traditional laws that ensure to varying degrees that, in cases of divorce, a woman has control of the property that she may have brought to the family and of what she may have accumulated during her married life (Suwadee 1989:58).

Matrilocal residence places stress on husbands and wives in somewhat different ways. Despite their positions of formal authority as household heads or office holders, men are dependent on their wives families. Although women find themselves needing to mediate conflicts between their husband and members of their matriline, many in-marrying men experience feelings of isolation in their wifes village.22 As Steven Piker notes, men have to leave the village in which their own family and kin live and move to the village of their wives, where all are strangers (1964:1216). Various anthropologists have remarked in passing that village festivities are marked with circles of men engaged in drinking and gambling (Kaufman 1960; Piker 1968:783784; Potter 1976:24). Although alcohol consumption has various motivations, these drinking circles provide a form of escape from the alienation men may experience in their wives families.23 As one village son-in-law explained to me, It was so difficult moving into my wifes home. I didnt know anyone else in the village and there were times I just needed to get away from her family. That their position as sons-in-law is an important aspect of male identity is revealed in the formation of a village mens group in Baan Dong village explicitly called Sons-in-Law of Baan Dong.

Understanding the respective positions of men and women in a matrilineal kinship system helps to shed light on the complex role of women in electoral politics: it illuminates both the social network and the economic position of the candidates wives and other female relatives that underlie their ability to mobilize votes. As Daniel Arghiros has keenly observed, although they are rarely candidates themselves, women are often effective canvassers who have access to households and to trading and credit relations that men lack (2001:164). He describes the winning candidate for provincial council, Sergeant Khem, who, together with his wife, Oy, owned a lucrative construction contracting business and building supply store. Prior to her marriage, Oy had helped her mother run the markets largest food and general supply store, extending credit to villagers when they hosted their life-cycle ceremonies. Oy continued this practice in her own business, extending credit district-wide to villagers and monks for their construction projects. As Arghiros explains,As everywhere in Thailand, it was the wife (Oy) who ran the store on a day-to-day basis rather than her husband and it was often to her rather than Khem that villagers and temples expressed a personal obligation in return for receiving credit. He concludes, This personal obligation was translated into electoral support (2001:132). Khems victory is all the more remarkable because he was widely disliked and had alienated many people by verbally abusing them when he was drunk. Revealing how marginal to the political process men may be, Arghiros explains:

Again, reflecting the critical but relatively invisible contribution of women to mens electoral campaigns, without exception local commentators considered that Sergeant Khem would have no chance of success were it not for his wife Oy. She would consistently repair the damage he did to his reputation by personally approaching people whom her husband had abused, patching up social relations. [2001:192]

Recognizing the importance of matrilineal kinship in village politics also sheds light on why women would be more reluctant to seek office or to become publicly identified with either a political candidate or political stance. Because cooperative labor exchanges underlie so many village activities, harmonious intra- and inter-matrilineal lineages are very important. Conict challenges the ability of all villagers to maintain harmonious inter-matrilineal and inter-village relations. However, because of a matrilineal structure, women are better positioned than men to mediate its resolution. By appearing neutral (even if she agrees with her husband), a woman protects a useful claim of plausible deniability. Having ones husband as a candidate rather than ones self allows a woman room to mediate and negotiate conflicts. Villagers expect the members of a candidates immediate matriline to be partisan. However, villagers who have bonds to more than one candidate make every effort to safeguard their apparent neutrality. When these efforts fail, women play a crucial and active role in ensuring intra-matrilineal, inter-matrilineal, and inter-village bonds, respectively.

Historical background to the 1995 election

Historically, elections for kamnan had provoked little public discord in this region. Until 1972, village heads elected one among themselves to serve as kamnan. In 1972, the law was changed such that kamnan were now elected by all the eligible voters residing in the subdistrict. The rst popular election for kamnan in Tambon Thungnaa was held in 1986. There were three candidates, but campaigning was minimal because consensus had been achieved long before the formal vote was taken.24 The victor won by a landslide; he came from a fairly wealthy family and lived in Baan Dong, by far the largest village in the tambon. His retirement triggered the 1995 election which I observed. After Baan Dong elected its new village head, the tambon was ready to hold its new election for kamnan.

However, the 1995 election for kamnan took place under greatly changed circumstances. The passage of new laws governing rural elections and the rapid expansion of capitalist development were leading to dramatic changes in village electoral dynamics throughout the country. A new law governing the village headmen and kamnan established that those elected after July 1992 could only serve five-year terms; those elected prior to this law were grandfathered, thus being allowed to remain in office until their retirement. In March 1995, a new law increased the administrative power of tambon councils. With the government budget for rural development expanding, gaining control over the tambon council became more important. The significant government budgets at stake and the differential in office terms meant that village heads able to serve until their retirement had greater incentives to invest heavily in election campaigns (for more details, see Bowie in press). The result was a widespread surge in vote buying and turmoil nationwide.

Of the 12 headmen in Tambon Thungnaa, four were elected under the new term limits; eight would serve until their respective retirements. The three candidates were headmen of the three largest villages in the tambon. Headman Kaew was the newly elected head of Baan Dong village; he had the advantage of representing by far the largest village in the subdistrict, comprising some 1,000 voters. Headman Ngen came from the smallest of the three villages fielding candidates, a village with some 400 voters. However, Ngen had the advantage that he was the wealthiest of the tambons headmen, running a lucrative road construction business; furthermore, he was elected headman under the old laws. Ngen proceeded to shore up a coalition of support with the other seven headmen who had also been elected under the old law, making a variety of promises of financial support to them personally and to their respective villages. These eight headmen agreed to close their villages (pid muubaan) by not allowing other candidates to campaign or hold public forums in their villages. The third candidate, Headman Kham, was also a newly elected headman. Although he represented a village with some 500 voters, he was not considered a serious candidate by anyone, including himself; as he explained to me, he was running primarily to position himself and his village for the future.

Unlike the previous election for kamnan, this election campaign lasted 30 days, beginning in earnest from the date the candidates registered at the district office. For weeks, the candidates wives, relatives, and friends were busy preparing meals three times a day for all the campaign workers. If the previous election had cost a few thousand baht (most spent for the victory celebration), the present election costs were in the tens and hundreds of thousands of baht.25 Campaign strategists for each of the candidates had the vote count down to a very narrow margin of error; they knew the vote would be close. Vote buying could easily make a difference. Although Headmen Kaew and Kham refusedand could not affordto buy votes, Headman Ngen did so unabashedly. As Headman Ngens campaign tactics became clear to villagers in Baan Dong, frustration, anger, and bitterness mounted.26

Villagers in Baan Dong felt devastated by the election results. Even though the position of kamnan had always been filled by someone from their village, Headman Ngen won. The final vote was 1,710 for Headman Ngen, 1,453 for Headman Kaew, and 480 for Headman Kham. In Baan Dong itself, the final vote was 36:916:2, representing their almost unified support for Headman Kaew. Attributing their loss to Headman Ngens dirty campaign tactics and vote buying, outraged villagers in Baan Dong held a village meeting immediately after the election. Many who spoke wanted to track down the 36 who had voted for Headman Ngen, seeking to punish all those who had betrayed Baan Dong. Some denounced vote sellers as lower than dogs: a dog sold for 200300 baht, but these people had sold their votes for less. Others lamented the pitiable honesty and stupidity of villagers who felt that once they had taken the money they were obligated to vote for the briber (syy con syy, honest to the point of stupidity).27 Tellingly, Headman Ngen never held the traditional inaugural feast; he was afraid there might be violence. The passions inflamed in the course of this election campaign continue to reverberate to the present, albeit in an attenuated form. That the intense passions have subsided owes much to the actions of village women described in the following vignettes.

Vignette 1: The pork seller

My rst personal encounter with the stress this election was generating occurred about two weeks before the election, when one of the men who sold pork at the local village morning market stopped by the house where I was staying. Although he had married into a nearby village, the pork seller was originally born in Baan Dong and returned daily to sell in Baan Dongs market. His saga reveals the plight of men who straddle two villages that have decided to support different candidates and illustrates the political role of women in applying pressure to vote in line with their villages decision. As was to be expected, the pork seller voted in accord with his wifes village, causing a rift with the women in his natal village. However, because of the importance of maintaining inter-village and inter-matrilineal relations, women from his natal village also took the rst steps to heal the rift after the election.

When the pork seller arrived, it was not even 7:00 a.m. and everyone else in the house was still sleeping. The pork seller, clearly upset, begged me to wake Dii up. I did so reluctantly. Dii came downstairs and the two men headed outside for a private conversation. As Dii reconstructed their discussion afterward, the pork seller was distraught about the election campaign and could not sleep at night. The head of the pork sellers wifes village was part of Headman Ngens coalition; consequently, his village head was refusing to allow the supporters of Headman Kaew to campaign in his village. Although this headman broadcast campaign advertisements in favor of Headman Ngen day and night over the village loudspeaker system, he refused to broadcast any of Headman Kaews advertisements. Furthermore, the headman was not allowing Headman Kaew to hold any public meetings in his village. As the headmans intransigence became apparent to Headman Kaews campaign supporters, they had asked this pork seller, as someone from Baan Dong, to allow them to hold a public meeting at his wifes home.

Initially, the pork seller had agreed to host such a gathering. His promise of support came at a particularly important moment because it followed on the heels of Headman Kaews supporters anger and frustration with another village headman who had double-crossed them (he had promised the use of his home to hold a campaign meeting and then later refused it). However, when the head of the pork sellers wifes village found out about the plan, he went over to their home, telling them that he could not guarantee their safety or future happiness if they allowed this meeting to take place. Frightened, the pork seller changed his mind and told Headman Kaews campaign workers that they could not use his home. Ever since, he explained to Dii, he has been having a hard time at the Baan Dong morning market. He said that the market women were teasing him that if he did not vote for Kaew, they would force him to sell his pork at Ngens village; this was an oblique reminder of his dependency on Baan Dong village because the other villages did not have a market. He did not know what he should do. Caught between the politics of his wifes village and Baan Dong, he lamented that he just wanted to sell his pork. He assured Dii that he had no intention to vote for Ngen and planned to vote for Kaew; after all, he said, he was originally from Baan Dong. But he complained that the marketers did not believe him and were making him feel miserable. Dii was reassuring, saying that he understood how the pork seller felt and realized that emotions were beginning to run high. Dii noted how he was also torn between Headman Kaew, who had been a student of his, and Headman Ngen, who was married to Phorns cousin.

After the pork seller left, Phorn joined us in the kitchen to make breakfast. Dii explained to her the pork sellers dilemma. In the course of the day, several of the market women stopped by, as they often did, to chat with Phorn. Phorn took the occasion to raise the issue of the pork seller. After some discussion, the market women agreed they had teased him a lot, and some said they had already begun to feel sorry for him (induu). Recognizing that he had no real choice, the harassment subsided for a time.

However, after the election, the pork seller became a target of Baan Dong villagers wrath. The pork sellers wifes village had voted 121:9:5 in favor of Ngen. Although the pork seller may well have provided one of the nine votes in favor of Kaew, Baan Dong villagers heard rumors that, when he was in his wifes village, he was actually telling people to vote for Ngen. Furthermore, Baan Dong villagers still held him responsible for the inability of Kaew supporters to campaign in his wifes village. He was denounced as a traitor at the village meeting. Notably, one of the most outspoken proponents for sanctions against the pork seller was another man who also sold pork in the village market. The pork sellers brother rose to speak in his defense, saying that everyone should understand that of course he needed to support his fellow villagers in the village where he was living. Someone else added that he had given a large contribution to Baan Dongs village temple. But these defenses were of no avail. The following morning, the pork seller found his chopping block destroyed. Rumors spread that eating his pork would make people sick (lut thohng). None of the women would buy pork from him. His competitor, a man who lived in Baan Dong, was the beneficiary of the boycott. One woman who was at the market three days after the election told me that the competitors pork stall still was so swamped with all the villagers trying to buy from him, one could not see the seller himself.

And, yet, gradually, life returned to normal. As noted earlier, women are the primary villagers who buy and sell in the market. For a time the pork seller stayed away from the Baan Dong market. Village women in Baan Dong began to comment about how they felt sorry for him. Some of them remarked to me that, if it was true that he had actively campaigned for Ngen, he should not have done that; however, they did not know for sure if he had. Maybe he had voted for Ngen; maybe not. If he had, he did not have much choice really because that was his wifes village and he had to live there. After a brief absence, he returned. Baan Dong village women resumed buying their pork from him, as well as his competitor. Slowly, the damage was repaired.

The case of the pork seller illustrates several interlaced issues at once. The pork sellers natal village and his wifes village were supporting different candidates. The women in both villages participated in their villages efforts to obtain unanimous support for their respective candidates. When forced to choose, the pork seller voted in accord with his wifes village. The women of Baan Dong played an active role in supporting the campaign of their village head and showed a willingness to implement sanctions on traitors, as evidenced in their boycott. However, these women also had a sense of the difficult situation in which out-marrying men found themselves, recognizing that men were under heavy pressure to vote in accord with their wives families. Men who married into Baan Dong had much weaker bonds with the pork seller because they would not have shared childhood memories with him. Consequently, it is not surprising that it was primarily Baan Dong women who sought to heal the rift with him because many of them were his relatives and had known him since childhood.

Vignette 2: Funeral society expulsion

The plight of Thong developed because, like the pork seller, Thong was born in Baan Dong but had moved to his wifes village after marriage. In addition to providing a second example of a man following the political will of his wifes village, his case illustrates how village women worked behind the scenes to counteract a public decision reached by men at a village meeting. The village headman of Thongs wifes village was solidly in Ngens camp, refusing to let villagers from Baan Dong campaign in his village. Like the pork seller, Baan Dong villagers had tried to convince Thong to campaign on Headman Kaews behalf, but he said he had no inuence so it would be a waste of time. He assured Baan Dong villagers that he had not forgotten his natal village, and he promised Kaew supporters that there would be at least one vote for Headman Kaew.

However, he would not let Kaew supporters meet his fellow villagers at his wifes home. When evidence mounted that Thong and others in his wifes village had sold their votes, anger with Thong grew. The assistant headman from Thongs wifes village had paid Headman Kaew a visit in Baan Dong before election day, informing him that Headman Ngen had offered them money for their votes and asking him whether he would be willing to pay them more for their votes. Although the cost of votes varied across villages, it seems the going rate in this village was 70 baht per vote. Headman Kaew refused their offer to buy their votes for a higher price. In the election, Thongs wifes village voted 164:0:2 in favor of Ngen. That not a single vote in this village had been cast for Headman Kaew created a serious problem for Thong because he could not plausibly claim to have supported Kaew.

At the village meeting, irate villagers expressed the view that Thong was a traitor and, therefore, should not get the benefits of membership in the Baan Dong community. Although not all villages have established organized funeral societies, Baan Dong has. Funerals, which generally last three to five days, are the most expensive and most important of the life-cycle rituals of ordinary villagers. Every villager aspires to a huge funeral with friends and relatives attending from villages far and wide.28 In Baan Dong, on the occasion of the death of any society member, all other members contribute 30 baht to help defray the funeral expenses. Thus, membership in village funerary societies holds a deep emotional resonance. Because Thong had grown up in Baan Dong, he had decided to maintain his membership in Baan Dongs funeral society even after his marriage into another village. At the meeting, Baan Dong villagers said that he should not have sold out his natal village for 70 baht if he wanted to get the 20,00030,000 baht at stake through the funeral society. Although women can speak at village meetings, they are more likely to remain silent and allow men to do the public speaking. When the men folk decided to expel Thong from the funeral society, the women remained silent.

The next few days had the feeling of suspended animation. The topic in every home I visited was the election and its aftermath. Anger against traitors was high, but no one had ever been expelled from Baan Dongs funeral society before. Some villagers questioned whether it was then fair to invent new rules for the society post facto. Was selling ones vote any worse than murder or theft? Even villagers who had ended up in jail had not been expelled from their funeral society; surely those crimes were worse than selling ones votes? Furthermore, others commented, what choice did Thong have? If he had voted for Headman Kaew, he would have been accused of being a traitor to his wifes village. Maybe he had sold his vote, but was it fair that he be the only person punished when others had sold their votes as well?

Stunned by the village meeting, I pursued the matter in the evening male drinking circles that formed with some regularity in a neighbors backyard; many of the most outspoken participants were men who had married into Baan Dong from outside and were not part of either the pork sellers or Thongs natal matrilines. Although I introduced my questions gingerly at first, the exchanges became more heated and frank as the discussions continued. Replying to my question about precedence, one man retorted that the law covers cases of murder and theft; Thong had violated the rules of the community and had failed to provide his cooperation (khwaam ruam myy). Pressing further, I asked whether revenge against specic individuals was right when the underlying issue was the refusal of various village headmen to allow free access to their villages for all the candidates. The men explained that they wanted to punish everyone who had sold their votes; however, they could only act definitively in cases like Thongs, in which they had clear evidence. I also asked if there may have been some who voted for Ngen because they truly thought he was the better candidate, asking if they were not being antidemocratic by trying to enforce village unity at the expense of freedom of expression. One of the most well-read men in the circle suggested that perhaps I could understand village politics by viewing Baan Dong as the Democratic Party; if a Democrat voted Republican, he or she should be kicked out of the party. In these first few nights, the men in this drinking circle were adamant that Thong was a traitor and deserved his expulsion. One villager, whose friendship with me has survived many such debates, warned me that I could only ask such things with them.

A few days later, the village temple leader stopped by to talk with Phorn. He told her that the evicted funeral society member was planning to press charges. An opinionated, in- married male neighbor who had been chatting with Phorn commented that Thong had no grounds to press charges because funeral societies are not legally registered entities. He said that the funeral society is at the discretion of its members and that there was no rule saying that anyone was necessarily in or out. Besides, he said, the village had already voted on their decision to expel this man and so the matter was settled. He added, One cant just keep redoing old votes, or nothing is authoritative [dedkhaad]. Phorn and the temple leader sighed. After the neighbor left, Phorn commented that hot-blooded people were creating problems for the senior funerary committee members to solve. The temple leader, a native of Baan Dong village, nodded in agreement.

About two weeks after the election, the head of the southern subgroup of the village funerary society (in effect, the southern matrilineal cluster), who was responsible for collecting funeral payments from Thong, came to visit Phorn. It seems that Thong had asked him to put his expulsion from the funeral society in writing. The subgroup leader did not want to be the one signing for fear of legal ramifications. He had talked to the village temple leader, who suggested that he talk to various other village elders for advice about how to proceed. One of the ever-present visiting male neighbors retorted that there were no legal ramifications because the funeral society was not a legally registered group. Another man suggested that this would have to be brought up at a village meeting. It never was. Because there was no official documentation establishing that Thong had been expelled, Thong made his contribution to the funerary society when the next funeral occurred. No formal objections were made and the subject was never raised again. After all, Thong had many relatives in Baan Dong who were sympathetic to his situation. As emotions cooled in the intervening weeks, interest in revenge waned. Private discussions held by Phorn, members of Thongs natal southern matrilineal cluster, and members of affiliated matrilines in Baan Dong were gradually, invisibly healing the wounds caused by outspoken men at the village meeting and in their drinking circles.

Vignette 3: Possession by the village spirit

The previous two examples revealed the plight of men who straddled villages, each of which was virtually unanimous in its support for different candidates. However, the village leadership is not always able to achieve such unanimity. In such cases, villages are most likely to split internally along matrilineal lines. This next vignette shows how the1995 election also threatened the unity of the various matrilines that made up Baan Dong itself and shows how women played a role in resolving this conflict.

Of the 36 villagers in Baan Dong who voted for Ngen, the majority were members of a matriline located in the north end of the village.29 This northern cluster (pok) was considered one of the poorest in the village; indeed, many of them had joined the Christian church in part to obtain scholarship support for their children. After Election Day, rumors were flying that these 36 had sold their votes.30 However, other factors were also involved in these villagers decision to vote for Ngen. This matriline had long been disgruntled that the roads in their part of the village were still just dirt roads. Headman Kaew tried to explain that the tambon council budget is for the main roads; only once all the roads in the tambon connect will the budget be used for secondary roads. Because they were part of Baan Dong village, sharing the same cemetery and temple, they were not eligible for separate tambon council funds. Already under the preceding kamnan, this cluster of the village had begun debating seceding from Baan Dong and forming a separate, new village; in this way, they would be eligible for tambon council funds because the road to their community would then be defined as a main road. Their other alternative for tar topping their road was the development budgets overseen by members of parliament because these funds could be used for secondary roads. Consequently, villagers in this cluster decided that they would have a better chance at getting money through this parliamentary budget if they supported Ngen because in his previous years as village headman he had developed links with various parliamentary candidates by serving as one of their local campaign coordinators (Headman Kaew was too newly elected to have formed such links).

Although villagers who had supported Headman Kaew were angry at the northern matriline, village reaction was more muted. At the public meeting, the 36 who betrayed Baan Dong were denounced in the abstract; however, no specific names were given. Some villagers said that if there was a way to prove who had taken money, they should be expelled from the funeral society as well. Others noted that they had no definitive proof on which they could take any action. However, other village elders were concerned that aggressive action against the northern cluster might provoke the lingering sentiments in favor of secession. Indeed, in the days after the election, the northern cluster, recognizing that there was considerable anger at them from the rest of the village, began to talk about forming a separate village. The flames of secession were fanned by the newly elected Kamnan Ngen, who evidently saw dividing Baan Dong into two smaller villages as a way to break its strength. Word spread throughout Baan Dong that a third hand” (myy thi saam) was trying to destroy their village.

By the end of the first week after the election, Headman Kaew began consultations with other village leaders about how to handle the situation. He was leaning toward appointing someone from the northern cluster, a man who not only represented the discontented north end of the village but was also related to the pork seller. Although this man had been a supporter of Ngen, he had always been helpful to Kaew in other village matters in the past. However, appointing a villager from the northern cluster meant displacing one of the two deputy village heads who had served his predecessor. Both of these deputy village heads had served as active supporters in Kaews campaign. Village elders with whom Headman Kaew consulted agreed that it would be best to replace one of the former assistants. To minimize the possibility that this new appointment might cause hurt feelings, Headman Kaew approached Phorn to seek her assistance. He knew that she and her family were close to this villagers wife; Phorn agreed she would talk to his wife to make sure she understood Kaews reasons and ensure that this villagers feelings were not hurt. Headman Kaew then appointed a member of the northern matriline as one of his new assistant heads.

With the groundwork in place, Headman Kaew called a new village meeting and asked those in favor of secession to speak. Only one person, Tukh, spoke up; Tukh was a younger man who had married into the northern matriline. The new assistant village head from the northern cluster was asked to speak; he said that he was neutral and thought that the issue could be revisited in another five years. Other villagers from other village matrilines then raised various counterarguments to secession. These comments included noting that secession would entail lengthy bureaucratic procedures and numerous legal headaches; that Headman Kaew had only just been elected as village headman and should be given a chance to address village problems; and that if the cluster broke off, it would only form a small village and small villages do not get much attention from MPs anyway because they only represent a few votes. Therefore, various villagers suggested that it was better to stick together. Furthermore, they shared the same temple and the same cemetery. After a silence in which it became clear that no one else wanted to speak publicly in favor of secession, a former kamnan (Phorns father) suggested that it was best to wait to press the issue. Everyone applauded and the meeting went on to discuss other business. At the end of the meeting, one village woman mentioned her delight in seeing Tukh get his comeuppance. She exclaimed gleefully, He was so embarrassed that he looked ready to fall into a hole and disappear. That will teach him a lesson for falling victim to the third hand trying to destroy village unity!

That night, in the middle of the night, Tukh suffered some kind of seizure. Some irreligious village skeptics explained to me that Tukh had probably suffered some sort of nightmares from the tension and frustration of being publicly humiliated at the village meeting that morning. However, the public story circulating held that he had been attacked by the temple spirit (phii wad). His father-in-law exorcised the invading spirit and shortly thereafter Tukh apologized to his fellow villagers for seeking to cause dissension. Clearly, Tukh sensed the condemnation of the spirit of the village, whether defined sociologically or animistically. With his exorcism, there was no further talk of dividing the village. With the deft maneuvering of the village headman and the assistance of Phorn, the rift across Baan Dongs matrilines had been patched.31

Vignette 4: Of women, vegetables, and healing

The foregoing examples have revealed the stress local electoral politics placed on inter-village and inter-matrilineal relations. However, the pressure electoral politics placed on individual women was made most clear to me as I watched Phorn negotiate between her husband, her village, and her extended matriline. Although Thai village marriages are generally uxorilocal, many families have more complex relations. Phorns mother is a younger half-sister of Ngens wifes mother; they had the same father but different mothers. Phorns maternal grandfather grew up and married a woman in Headman Ngens village; they had two children together, but she died young. After she died, he remarried and had two more children with his second wife; one was Phorns mother. Although his second wife lived in a different village, the grandfather maintained close ties with both families. These ties have continued over the decades. Since childhood, Phorn has traveled frequently with her mother and other relatives in Baan Dong to visit Ngens wifes family in their village and vice versa; during large festival occasions they often stayed overnight in each others villages to help with preparations. About two weeks before the election, two of Phorns cousins came to visit her, conveying a message from Ngens wife that they were very upset that Phorns husband was being so outspoken in favor of Headman Kaew and urging her to ask her husband to become more neutral.

The following week, Phorn went to Ngens village to pay her respects to her aunt, a traditional visit she makes annually as part of the April New Years celebrations (dam hua). Phorn found herself under siege as her aunt and other relatives criticized her for not better reining in her husband. They informed her that her husband had been involved in a drinking circle several days earlier in which he was reported as having told the local medic that if he did not vote for Headman Kaew, he should quit his job. The relatives told Phorn that when her husband drinks, he goes too far. They said that they heard frequent reports about everything her husband was saying in the various drinking circles he attended. They cautioned her that, although they were trying not to pay much attention to his drunken remarks, she should remember the importance of relatives. As the aunt explained, Were relatives and we shouldnt be separated from each other [khaat kan bo daj]. We need to be able to depend on each other. After all, who else but relatives do you rely on when you are sick in hospital or have other problems? They told Phorn to remind her husband that he should also remember the importance of relatives.

Phorn came home that evening, very upset. Not only was her husband being criticized, but she also had learned that her father was being derogatorily called a two-headed bird (nok song hua) for his efforts to remain friendly with both sides. But when she told her husband about her trip, he got angry. He denied having made the remark to the tambon medic and insisted that he had never directly criticized Ngen; he had only said people should consider the respective term lengths in office when voting. Turning to me, he complained that his wife never understood him. He added that other local schoolteachers were far more outspoken, even going around in the trucks speaking for Kaew. Besides, he felt an obligation to support Kaew and the younger generation of village leaders because they had been his students. Clearly feeling frustrated, Phorns husband left the house and went over to the headmans house to seek refuge in the evening discussion of electoral strategies. He returned, intoxicated, a couple of hours later. Phorn was still upset and they started arguing, the focus now on how her husband should watch his mouth when he drank because he often said more than he should and upset people in the process. As the argument escalated, Phorn fought back tears. Finally, Phorn decided not to respond and went into the bathroom to take her evening shower. I could hear her crying in frustration. No less upset, her husband went upstairs to bed. The following morning, nothing more was said about the previous days incidents at breakfast; each clearly understanding the respective pressures their spouse was feeling.

Three days later, Phorn decided to take motorcycles with two other relatives from her village, both also cousins of Ngens wife, to help Ngens wife with the food preparations for the day. Phorn told her husband she was going; he said nothing. Phorn told me that she had no intention of hiding her support for her own village headmans candidacy, but she did not want others in Baan Dong village knowing about their visit and starting rumors. Their plan to head south to Ngens village unnoticed was a complete failure because they kept running into fellow villagers. The three women stopped the motorcycles to confer; they decided they had better turn back and go to Kaews house to help. When they arrived at Kaews house, people there asked why they were seen going south. Phorn confessed that they were going to go and help for a day at Ngens house. What am I to do? she asked the other women. After all, they are my relatives and I should go to help out. Intriguingly, Headman Kaews mother spoke up and said that of course they should go and help. After helping with food preparations at Kaews house for a couple of hours and enduring considerable teasing, Phorn and her cousins concluded they would wait until after the election and then go to visit.

In the days after the elections, there was little contact between the two villages. The victory feast that newly elected kamnan and headmen normally host for all their constituents was never held; the rumor circulated that the new kamnan was afraid it might trigger violence. The new kamnan never came to visit Headman Kaew to offer him a position as deputy kamnan, a customary way of healing rifts.32 Then, about a month after the election, the new kamnan and his wife held a housewarming to celebrate the completion of their new house. Although they made nervous jokes about going into enemy territory, Phorn and one of her cousins decided that the housewarming was important enough that they should go. Their reception turned out to be worse than they expected. As Phorn recounted to me, the housewarming was a gala event, replete with live likay theater performances. At the head table sat the new kamnan, surrounded by a member of parliament and the seven village headmen who had been his supporters; the other four village headmen were noticeably absent. Remarkably, the kamnans wife was also sitting at the head table next to her husband instead of mingling with the women as would have been customary. No one else from that village that she knew was present, nor was anyone else from Baan Dong there. Despite her effort to reach out, Ngen and his wife ignored her. Consequently, Phorn and her cousin had a miserable time and came home without even eating properly. Phorn commented in frustration, They have no reason to be angry with me. I didnt do any campaigning and my husband had only campaigned in our village. Of course we had to support our village.

After this disastrous visit, Phorn and her cousins in Baan Dong vowed to sever relations. The election had stressed kin relations to the breaking point (phoh naa kan bo tit, lit. unable to look each other in the face). However, the inevitable flow of funerals and other important occasions gradually softened their angry resolve. Although Phorn has told me that she no longer feels as close to her aunt and her relatives in Ngens village as before the election, she has resumed visiting on important village occasions to help with vegetable chopping and other aspects of meal preparations. The seemingly apolitical acts of women chopping vegetables at each others homes for various special occasions are, in fact, highly political, serving to transmit information and maintain networks for future times of need.

Conclusion: The art of the neutral partisan

That the dominant paradigm of electoral politics has ignored the role of women even in a matrilineal society with a pioneering history in womens suffrage indicates the extent of its androcentricism. In analyzing this village-level election, I show that anthropological understanding of kinship dynamics can provide important insights into the often hidden role of women in electoral politics. Local elections are far more threatening to village harmony than provincial and national elections (see also Arghiros 2001:2).33 As these four vignettes reveal, electoral politics generate partisan conflicts that threaten marriages, matrilines, and broader inter-village networks. These intense social dramas made the multiple roles of women, normally invisible, more visible. The case of the pork seller revealed village womens efforts to ensure internal village unity and, to a lesser degree, to further their candidates campaign in another village. The case of the expelled member of the funeral society revealed how women ignored the decision of the public meeting and worked to reestablish inter-village relations. The case of the man possessed by the village spirit revealed how Phorn and other women helped to heal an intra-village inter-matrilineal rift by facilitating the appointment of an assistant headman from the northern matriline. The final case revealed the political significance of womens attendance at the never-ending succession of village funerals, housewarmings, weddings, and temple festivals in maintaining and mending important everyday kinship relations. Far from uninterested, women played an important role not only in their efforts to mobilize votes for specific candidates but also in their efforts to achieve unity within their villages and to heal divisions both within and across their villages.

Anthropological insights into patterns of kinship help to reveal a complex realm of gendered politics hidden between the right to vote and the right to hold office. Seeking to minimize electoral partisanship, any villager with multiple links to various candidates faces the contradiction of supporting each candidate while casting a vote. Invisibility can be an important strategy in the art of partisan neutrality. In July 2005, I had occasion to observe an internal village election for two positions as village representatives to the tambon administrative organization. Nine candidates ran. The lack of discussion was deafening; almost everyone in the village was related to all nine candidates in some manner. Villagers were willing to declare one vote for whoever was their closest kin; they were noncommittal about their second vote, resolutely restricting themselves to a description of each candidates respective strengths. When I delicately probed into who might win, the standard response was a politic refrain, depends on their kinship network (laewtae khryayaator, alternatively, yaat phai yaat man). More likely to remain invisible, women are in a better position to perfect the art of neutral partisanship and ameliorate the impact of local electoral campaigns on intra- and inter-village relations.

Although few women have sought public offices, an understanding of the dynamics of matrilocality and matrilineal kinship reveals that women nonetheless have an important political presence. Embedding male leaders, be they as candidates or canvassers, within their matrilines suggests that the political networks provided by their wives, sisters, and mothers are not incidental but, rather, fundamental to an understanding of successful campaigns. Not holding formal office has allowed women to claim plausible deniability, enabling them to mitigate discord. At the village level, the art of neutral partisanship enables women to pursue the broader interests of their matrilines and safeguard village harmony. Although villagers still compose the majority of Thailands population, the countrys overall political economy is changing. As villages are becoming increasingly less agrarian and less dependent on cooperative labor exchanges, the importance of matriliny as an organizing principle of social organization is also weakening. These broader changes may well explain why the number of village women seeking formal political office is beginning to increase.

Michel Foucault notes that silence functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies (1979:27). My point is not that men are irrelevant to village politics but, rather, that women are also relevant. With matrilines as the key structural principle of village social organization, womens roles have been to safeguard their matrilines and ensure the functioning of inter-matrilineal relations both within and across villages. Because men are more likely to be outsiders, it has been safer for them to engage in the overt conflict office-seeking entails. Even though women may agree with the explicit positions of their husbands, their public silence allows them to heal any wounds their husbands positions may create. Thus, the principle of matrilocality has given village politics a particular character in which women have an important, but often covert, role in the politics of everyday life and elections alike. In the politics of matrilineal kinship, conflict is the arena for ignorant, drunken husbands and sons-in-law; resolving conflict is the arena for knowledgeable, sober wives and mothers. If formal politics is necessarily divisive, womens political role is in avoiding conflict and healing division. The processes are diametrically opposed, but each is political.

Noted parliamentarian Khunying Supatra Masdit suggests that increasingly the norm of politics being exclusively the mens realm is being shattered (1991:16). I would like to suggest that it is time to shatter the myth that Thai politics has ever been exclusively the domain of men. In 1974, Jane F. Collier remarked that although male informants may treat women as politically irrelevant, the anthropologist who seeks a deeper understanding of political processes cannot ignore womens goals and strategies (1974:89). Her admonition remains current.



The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Narong and Kongchan Mahakhom, Somjai Viriyabanditkul, Daniel Arghiros, Michael Herzfeld, Gay Seidman, Maria Lepowsky, Sharon Hutchinson, Kate Bjork, Arjun Guneratne, Penny Van Esterik, Megan Sinnott, Patcharin Lapanun, Nongyao Nawalat, Nalinee Tantuvanit, Sanitsuda Ekachai, Yukti Mukdawijitra, Ester Sweeney, Janet Murphy, Walter and Gertrud Bowie, many friends and colleagues in Tambon Thungnaa, Donald Donham, and the anonymous reviewers of this article.

1.      Joan Vincents masterful overview of anthropology and politics includes no mention of elections in her bibliography (1990). Notable exceptions to this generalization include F. G. Bailey 1969, Peter Loizos 1975, Michael Herzfeld 1985, and, more recently, John Pemberton 1994, Mariane Ferme 1998, and James McLeod 1999. Herbert Phillips wrote the first anthropological account that focused on village perspectives of a national election in Thailand (1958; see Bowie in press for an overview of the literature on village electoral politics in Thailand).

2.      As Susan Gal suggests, the terms public and private are relational and do not simply describe the social world in any direct way (2002:79; see also Atkinson and Errington 1990; Collier and Yanagisako 1987; Ortner 1996; Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Reiter 1975; Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974; Sanday 1981; Sanday and Goodenough 1990; Weiner 1976).

3.      Examples include Cynthia Enloe 1989, Christine Gailey 1987, Tamara Loos 2006, June Nash and Helen Safa 1986, Sally Engle Merry 2000, Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz 1995, Theda Skocpol 1992, and Ann Stoler 1985.

4.      I use matrilocal rather than uxorilocal throughout this article because it is more accessible to non-specialists and to highlight the social networks formed by mothers and their daughters rather than the relationship between husband and wife.

5.      The 1982 law allowed previously elected village and subdistrict heads to remain in office until their retirement, further impeding womens opportunities (see Nongyao 1994). Women have been eligible to serve as assistant village head since the creation of that position in 1943; however, I have not found any figures on the number of women appointed to this position. Although Thailand held its first national parliamentary elections in 1933, the first woman was not elected to parliament until 1949 (Amara 1988:83).

6.      Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker phrase this view more tersely: Most women work. A few manage. None govern (1996:114; see also discussions in Amara 1988; Darunee and Pandey 1991; Doneys 2002; Juree 1997b; Nongyao 1994; Thomson1995:11; Thomsen and Maytinee 1995; Virada and Kobkun 1994).

7.      New Zealand is considered to be the first nation in the world to extend suffrage to women, in 1893. Unlike New Zealand, Thai women obtained the vote without a suffrage movement (see Loos 2004). See Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan 1994 for a chronological list. Although this list dates Thai womens suffrage to 1932, when elections for the national assembly were instituted, they have had the right to vote in local elections since at least 1897.

8.      Such interpretations encourage the view that the strategy of informing and reaching women at the grassroots level is an important public precondition for womens entrance in the political sphere, and to reform a political system dominated by men (Doneys 2002:179; see also Nongyao 1994; Thomson 1995; Thomson and Maytinee 1995).

9.      Similar observations have been made at the provincial and municipal levels. Fishel notes the role played by various candidates mothers (2001; see also Askew in press; Nongyao 1994:127; Ockey 2004:113; Thomson and Maytinee 1995:9).

10.  All names have been changed.

11.  The institution of surnames in 1913 has introduced a complicating element of patrilineality. For discussion, see Andrew Walker 2006.

12.  Foreign travelers and scholars alike have long remarked the pan-Southeast Asian pattern of female autonomy(Reid 1988:153) and the importance of the role conferred on women and of relationships in the maternal line (Andaya 2000:1; see also Van Esterik 1982:1). A new wave of feminist scholarship is revealing the political significance of womens positions in matrilineal societies in Southeast Asia (e.g., Andaya 2000; Atkinson and Errington 1990; Blackwood 2000; Brenner 1998; Carsten 1997; Lepowsky 1993; Ong and Peletz 1995).

Nonetheless, even in matrilineal societies the study of gender has been dominated by androcentric analyses of kinship, inheritance and marriage (Blackwood 1995:127). De Young provides an example of how bias develops, writing, In north Thailand one of the daughters and her husband remain in her familys house.... If there is more than one daughter, the eldest daughter and her husband remain in her fathers house. The womans fathers house is also her mothers house. To his credit, he also noted, The social position of the Thai peasant woman is powerful: she has long had a voice in village governmental affairs (1966:24).

As a female anthropologist who has had to wash her clothes in buckets kept separate from those used to wash mens clothing, hang her laundry in the back of the compound, and refrain from entering the ordination hall (bot) of the village temple, I would not want to minimize the complexity of understanding the role of women in Thai society. Pioneering studies of the position of women in Thai society include Amara 1988; Chatsumarn 1991; Cohen and Gehan 1984b; Darunee and Pandey 1991; Eberhardt 1988; Fishel 1997; Hong 1998; Jackson and Cook 1999; Juree 1997b; Keyes 1984; Kirsch 1985; Loos 2006; Mills 1999; Morris 1994; Muecke 1992; Ockey 1999; Sinith 1996; Sinnott 2004; Suwadee1989; Van Esterik 1982, 2000; Virada and Kobkun 1994; Virada and Theobold 1997; Wilson 2004.

13.  Matrilineal societies may practice bilocal, oscillating, avunculocal, and even patrilocal post-marriage residence (see Carsten 1997:67; Gough 1961; Lepowsky 1993:47; Malinowski 1978, respectively; see also Schneider and Gough 1961). The Malay region of southern Thailand practices oscillating residence (Fraser 1966:30).

14.  Konrad Kingshill, who began his fieldwork in northern Thailand in the 1950s, noted that there is a definite tendency toward matrilocal residence (1976:60; see also De Young 1966:64; Gehan 1967:69). Richard Davis writes, My reconstruction of genealogies . . . did not reveal a single case of the rules being contravened (1984:52). For the northeast, see Keyes 1983:852; Koichi Mizuno 1968:845; Stanley Tambiah 1970:1415. For the central region, see Jeremy Kemp 1970; Herbert Phillips 1965:24; Piker 1964:41, and Lauriston Sharp and Lucien Hanks 1978:56.

15.  For the northeast, see Keyes 1983; Tambiah 1970:14. For the central region, see Sharp and Hanks 1978:56.

16.  The ancestral spirits can be narrowly defined as an original grandfathergrandmother traced through female descent; however, both the number and gender of these spirits appear to be ambiguous in the minds of most villagers.

17.  The position of males is more ambiguous. Turton suggests a man enters his wifes descent group on marriage and is thereby lost to his mothers group (1972:220221). Walker 2006 suggests a more complex situation. For fuller discussions, see also Davis 1984, Potter 1977, and Paul Cohen and Gehan Wijeyewardene 1984b. Because two women of different matrilineal spirit lines should not live together, my own marriage prompted a discussion among relatives of the family with whom I had resided as a single woman. Although some relatives suggested it was not a problem because I was American and probably did not have a spirit line, we built a small separate sleeping quarter within my host familys compound.

18.  In northern Thailand, sons who married into their wives villages, although they have a right to a share of the inheritance, may donate or sell their share to their sisters in their natal village.

19.  According to one19th-century report, the political allegiances of northern Thai households appear to have transmitted largely through women, men changing their allegiance to their wifes lord (Hallett 1890:131).

20.  As early as 1693, de la Loubere remarked that the wives of the people managing all the trade do enjoy a perfect liberty (Van Esterik 2000:43). In 1934, J. M. Andrews estimated that every village household sent at least one of its women to the market every morning (1935:136). Men were more likely to engage in long-distance trade (see Bowie 1988, 1992).

21.  Sharp and Hanks noted villagers turned to the daughter of the kamnan in their area for loans because she was one of the larger landholders in Bang Chan (1978:153).

22.  Sulamith Potter, noting the important role of wives in mediating family conflicts, concludes that the effect of all this is to give a woman an important voice in the management of family life, a position of power which comes from her place in the structure of the family (1977:101).

23.  Juree suggests men drink to “flaunt their independence and freedom from mothers and wifes control (1997:441).

24.  Each candidate had a few posters made, and, the day before the election, their supporters drove a few trucks blaring out their poll numbers from loudspeakers through the tambon villages.

25.  Headmen Kaew, Ngen, and Kham spent about 100,000 baht, 400,000 baht, and 60,000 baht, respectively (in 1995, $1.00 equaled approx. 25 baht). Food and liquor were major expenses. In addition to posters and leaflets, the candidates hired professionals to make taped advertisements to broadcast from loudspeakers affixed on the back of trucks. Headman Ngen hired advertising trucks; the other two candidates relied on supporters donating trucks, drivers, and gas. With as many as 40 vehicles driving through the tambon on a single day in support of each candidate, the amount spent on gas alone was considerable.

26.  Villagers often ended their denunciation of Headman Ngens tactics, saying:

Thaa thuk hii, hii aa
Thaa thuk yaa, yaa daaj
Thaa thuk khwaaj, pen chin laap.


If it lands on a vagina, the vagina opens
If it lands on grass, the grass dies
If it lands on a buffalo, it becomes chopped meat (laap)

Laap is a village delicacy eaten on special occasions, made of finely chopped meat mixed with spices.

27.  The modified version of Haas phonetics does not reveal the very slight differences in the vowels between these two words.

28.  So important are such funerary gatherings that present and potential candidates for provincial and national office will often try to attend, or at least send a contribution to be announced over the funerary loudspeaker system. See discussion in Fishel 2005.

29.  Other likely defectors included a couple who were upset with the village headman over a decision to relocate their village store to make room for a new health station and a woman who had borrowed money from Ngen on various occasions.

30.  The minister called a meeting of his congregants. Although some non-Christians attended in the hopes that the minister would obtain confessions from those who had sold their votes, instead the minister merely made a general admonition that vote selling is wrong.

31.  This rift has reemerged in the course of an election for the tambon council in 2005.

32.  Instead, he appointed his assistants from the seven headmen who had supported him.

33.  In supra-village elections, villagers may decide to remain unified to gain leverage with a winning candidate (even selling their votes as a block), or they may decide to deliberately split their votes to ensure an alliance with whichever candidate wins.

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Accepted September 9, 2007

Final version submitted June 18, 2007

Katherine Bowie
Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI 53706