Imagining a new mandala in mainland Southeast Asia

[This is a copy of the talk I presented to the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Group's Annual Business Meeting on 27 March 2010 at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting held in Philadelphia.]

Tonight I want to talk about imagining a new mandala in mainland Southeast Asia. It sounds a bit grandiose, so let’s bring it down to earth.

A useful starting point is this ramshackle shed on the bank of the Mekong river in the far north of Thailand.

I spent a lot of time in this shed in 1994 while I was doing my PhD research on cross border trading systems between Thailand, Laos and southern China. This shed, which lay just above Chiang Khong’s cargo port, was the operational headquarters of the Chiang Khong Cross-River Boat Operators Association. The 38 members of this association, using a carefully enforced roster system, carried cargo from the wholesale shops of Chiang Khong to the town of Houayxai on the opposite bank. This cargo was then loaded onto much larger Mekong river boats and despatched downstream to the ports of Paak Beng and Luangphrabang. What interested me about the cross-river boat operators was that while they were regular border crossers they certainly were not border transgressors. Their livelihoods depended on the strict regulation of the border and micro-control of the limited number of places where it could be crossed. This rag-tag group of men had succeeded in establishing monopoly control over the cross-river cargo trade between Chiang Khong and Huayxai.

In the Legend of the Golden Boat, I examined the various dimensions of this link between livelihood and regulatory power. Tonight, I want to emphasise one aspect of it: the intertwining of the boat operator’s authority and state power. At the most general level Chiang Khong’s boat operators, like the many other traders and transport operators I worked with, were engaged in the collaborative regulation of the national border. Their restrictive operational practices dovetailed with the more formal efforts of the Thai and Lao states to demarcate the border and, more importantly, to direct and tax passage across it. This institutional synergy, found day to day expression in social interaction between the boat operators,  customs officials and immigration police and was facilitated by the exchange of a wide range of currencies ranging from cash itself, to food, alcohol, supernatural blessings and, perhaps most potent of all, pornographic videos.  As I wrote at the time, “it is easy to be dazzled by the symbols of state power at the border – immigration posts, flags, boom gates, tight trousers and guns – but these are often integrated into, and support, local landscapes of power.”

My second opening vignette comes from the neighbouring province of Chiang Mai and is a product of much more recent fieldwork that I’ve been doing in the northern Thai village that I have called Ban Tiam. Here I found that I spent a lot of time talking about “projects” (khrongkan). This is one of them. It is a local organic fertiliser project. The project members are crushing “golden apple snails” so they can be used as the basis for liquid fertiliser. The snails are an introduced pest in rice fields in Thailand and the project paid villagers to collect them and bring them in for crushing. This project was established with contributions from the villagers themselves and a 20,000 baht grant from the local Watershed Protection Office. Other funds for the purchase of equipment were obtained from the Municipality and from the Department of Land Development. The son of the provincial assemblyman was appointed as an adviser to the group. The liquid fertiliser was one of the project’s first major activities. Many farmers within Ban Tiam were sceptical about the cost and technical viability of the fertiliser, but officials in the Watershed Protection Office and the Municipality considered the project to be successful in demonstrating Ban Tiam’s collective solidarity and its environmental credentials.

Development projects like this are often interpreted as providing a basis for extending the power of the state, albeit often in technically neutral terms that masks the political content of the development process. This is Ferguson’s famous “anti-politics machine.” We read a lot about the role of development schemes in national projects for civilisation and improvement, creating manageable subjects and implementing neo-liberal visions of self-regulating individuals by implanting government at a distance.

Of course, the projects I have been looking at in Ban Tiam do play a role in extending state power. The fertiliser project, for example, promotes an environmentalist and sufficiency economy orthodoxy that has become popular in some Thai government agencies. However I am more interested in looking at projects as sites were new types of power are condensed and created. In the tradition of some important work done in mainland southeast Asia, perhaps potency, auspiciousness or power-protection would be better words to use than power with its all too common connotation of domination. The beauty of local development projects is that they provide villagers with an institutional framework for concentrating and domesticating state power. They are auspicious site of development, where the forces of the state are productively bound with local livelihoods and with the moral appeal of community. These projects are certainly not “anti-politics machines” that conceal the expansion of state power behind neutral and technical practice. On the contrary: the predominant vision created in Ban Tiam’s development projects is of a state that is bound to society, embedded in local relationships and caught up in its webs of exchange. Projects are explicitly productive of this political society in which non-standard, non-technical and personalised forms of government predominate and in which state power is drawn into intimate domains. In performing this domesticating function, development projects can be thought of as spirit shrines for the state; much like the boat operator’s shed in Chiang Khong, which is a typically ramshackle shrine that creatively draws together various types of regulatory power that are in play along the border.

This is the approach that informs my imagining of a new mandala – a new way of thinking about power, space and state-society relations in mainland southeast Asia, especially in rural areas.

The old mandala is well known to us. It is a centre-oriented configuration, in which power radiates outwards from a pre-eminent centre, with smaller nodes of radiating power nested within the hierarchy. The centre is dominant: politically, economically and, of course, spiritually. In standard account of the modern spatial reorganisation of mainland southeast Asia the nested hierarchy of mandalas has been displaced by territorial and administrative incorporation into modern nation states. Classic accounts of modern state-based power draw attention to the displacement of former systems of muang and mandala and focus on the creation of standardised and clearly demarcated administrative grids. In this modern system power is extended from the centre not by radiating outwards but by a more intrusive penetration into the day-to-day realities of economy and society. Customs officers, border posts, development projects and watershed offices are typically portrayed as being part of that process of modern incorporation within bounded nation states and the displacement of former systems of socio-spatial organisation.

My interest is in exploring new models of power that get away from this popular account of the life and death of the old mandala. In starting with a rustic river bank shed and a local fertiliser project I am taking up a call made by Deborah Tooker in a 1996 paper that argued for “putting the Mandala in its place.” Tooker suggests that historical sources tend to reproduce elite models of power – the mandala is a classic example – and that ethnographic fieldwork can provide alternative visions. I agree with her, but I think this ethnographic quest in mainland southeast Asia has been overly constrained by a preoccupation with contestation and resistance to the penetrative incorporation of the modern nation state. Anthropologists have been primarily interested in documenting political and cultural sites that lie at the margins of power, or beyond it, or which contest modern structures. Anthropologists fell in love with Zomia, even before they knew that was its name. Sometimes this is expressed nostalgically, and not without a dash of pan-Thai sentiment, as a quest for a culturally revitalised mandala structure, with a greater Thai world displacing the nation state and extending outwards to embrace Laos, parts of Burma and chip away at the margins of China and India. The obsession with an anti-capitalist and anti-state community culture and sufficiency economy reflects a similar yearning for a pre-modern mandala-like arrangement in which an exemplary centre of royalists, bureaucrats, academics and NGOs lays down a moral template for the edification of non-assertive and relatively autonomous rural satellites.

What I want to do is to propose a new mandala, one that avoids both misplaced nostalgia for the old mandala and the sense that modern state power is an intrusive and disruptive force in local social arrangements. The new mandala I am proposing has three key elements:

First, the new mandala has no clearly defined centre. The extraordinary economic transformations that have taken place within the region, combined with the proliferation of forms of modern government, means that there is now a pervasive network of economic, political and symbolic power with numerous points of attachment and engagement. Influence, security and prosperity is pursued by entering into projects (in the broadest sense of the word) that involve pragmatic and often relatively impermanent relationships with scattered sources of power.

Second, the physics of power in the new mandala is neither radiation or penetration. These metaphors can be useful but they attribute agency primarily to the centre. I prefer the imagery of domestication. In the new mandala power diverse sources of power, including the power of the state, are drawn in, condensed and re-combined to create locally productive flows of potency. These local flows of power are regulated by institutional arrangements and sets of values that comprise what, in a specifically political context, I’ve called a “rural constitution.” We don’t need to look for alternative forms of power or agency at the margins—or on the periphery, in the uplands, off-stage, or in zomia—we can find them at the ubiquitous points throughout the modern polity where external power and local livelihoods are productively combined.

Third, I see the modern state as having a fundamentally productive role in the constitution of these new mandalas of power, especially in rural areas. This is a historically specific formation. In general terms we see the state moving along a path from taxing the rural economy to subsidising it. I have no doubt that the different countries of our region are at different points along this path, but Thailand has certainly moved furthest and has reached a point where the state now puts considerably more into rural communities than it takes out. This is a fundamentally important transformation: it has dispersed and fragmented the state itself in a way that comprehensively blurs the demographic distinction between state and community. Bureaucratic style is now an important part of the repertoire of local wisdom. The material and symbolic resources available from the state mean that it is now an object of desire. The core political dynamic for the new mandala is not minimising surplus extraction but maximising state subsidy and regulatory support. The boat operators of Chiang Khong and the snail crushers of Ban Tiam are representatives of this new political economy.

So, we have three core elements of the new mandala: no clearly defined centre, a physics of power based on domestication and a system of local power that is underpinned by the state. Let me now propose a useful cultural metaphor for thinking about this new mandala: string.

In ritual contexts in many parts of our region, string is used to create flexible and multi-centred networks for the generation, concentration and distribution of power. String is used to connect entities of different sacred powers. It connects monks with laymen, Buddha images with mundane objects and high status members of a congregation with their lowliest neighbours. This connection does not diminish the power of entities that possess a great deal of it, nor is it seen as restricting or controlling those who have much less of it. Rather, the connection creates the potential for a generation and flow of powerful benefits for all who are linked into the network. This is a de-centred network with multiple nodes of concentrated power within it—monks, novices, Buddha images, other sacred entities and merit making villagers. Some of these may be particularly revered by the congregation, but they enhance the potency of the entire network rather than monopolising a central place within it. New nodes of sacred power can be bought into the network without challenging any strongly established hierarchy. For me, the network of string captures the essence of the new mandala – decentred, flexible and, while not without basic inequalities, potentially democratic.

Of course, in moving away from a focus on power as domination, there is the risk that the network of string provides us with an overly benign metaphor. I acknowledge this risk. I am only too aware that string-like connections can also bind people into relationships of exploitation and oppression where opportunities for productive agency are severely constrained. But, at the same time, I think it is important that scholarship on the abusive excesses of power recognise that the exception is exceptional; that abuse is a breach of the norm. We risk blunting our critique of the misuse of power, if we insist on the making the exception mundane.

***

Let me now move on to New Mandala, with a capital “N” and capital “M”. New Mandala is a blog established in mid 2006 by myself and my colleague Nicholas Farrelly. The timing of its launch was fortuitous. After a few months of New Mandala’s operation, Thailand’s coup of 2006 boosted us from obscurity to notoriety. Since those early days New Mandala has hosted more than 2,300 posts and over 20,000 reader comments. Over the past year there have been over 700,000 “reads” of our various posts. Though I have no doubt that some find its presence disconcerting, or worse, I am happy to be immodest and declare that it has been an important addition to public discussion on mainland southeast Asia.

For me, a central part of the mission for New Mandala was to give expression to some of the imaginings about power that I have been talking about. There is no clear editorial line at New Mandala, despite regular claims to the contrary, but there is a general commitment to providing alternative visions of the numerous ways in which power,  potency and agency is constituted and expressed in the region. Sometimes this has been relatively light hearted, such as my interest in the “coyote dancing” controversy that erupted in October 2006 when Thailand’s queen reacted unfavourably to TV images of scantily clad dancers at a temple in Nong Khai (I hope she doesn’t go to her son’s birthday parties). I argued, inspired by Durkheim, that “Scantily dressed dancing girls, given their exceptional nature, play a part in marking Buddhist festivals as times of exceptional, and sacred, assembly.” I also quoted from one of the festival songs recorded by Richard Davis in Nan province in the 1960s to show that there is nothing new about the combination of bawdiness and Buddhism:

And where do you live, little sister with the low strut, coming to watch the fireworks as if you were a queen? Whose little girl are you? I’ve a mind to bend your neck over and give you a kiss. I only dislike breasts that droop like bee’s nests. But you, – Lord, I’d like to give you a hug. … This is the bawdiest New Year yet. Spines bent back like lizards on the spit, brassieres barely covering the nipples. Small and trim-waisted with breasts like watermelons.

Here we have a delightfully cultural angle on the new mandala, with its seemingly undisciplined combination of forms of sacred and sexual potency in a way that is no doubt disturbing for members of the elite who suffer from premature hardening of the categories. New Mandala, the blog, delights in documenting such phenomena.

It was no accident, I suspect, that publicity about the queen’s concerns about lewd dancing at Buddhist festivals came in October 2006, not long after the coup. It was part of a post-coup intensification of the Thai elite’s disparagement of rural culture; one element in the campaign to delegitimize rural people’s electoral judgements. The moralistic, and profoundly hypocritical, sufficiency economy campaign was another element in this attack, and another target for regular New Mandala critique. New Mandala made a useful contribution to exploring the close relationship, in the post-coup environment, between sufficiency economy and sufficiency democracy.

In relation to our more explicitly political content, and there has been a lot of it, New Mandala has regularly been criticised for adopting what is interpreted as a pro-Thaksin position. My contributions to New Mandala have prompted one commentator on Thailand to describe me as “the most pro-Thaksin commentator in the western world.” I’m happy to put that on my CV, but, with respect, I think this sort of comment is missing the broader point that New Mandala is trying to make. For me, the intellectually compelling thing about Thaksin is that he recognised that, in modern Thailand, power could be produced in new circuits of influence. His policies of resource mobilisation, economic development, credit provision and health care recognised that aspirations for local power and potency were now oriented towards non-local flows of material and symbolic resources. The Thaksin phenomenon intellectually undercut the persistent anti-capitalist and anti-state sentiments of many observers of rural Thailand and left them grasping at conceptual thin air when they had to formulate a response to the 2006 coup.

Apart from Thaksin, there has been another figure that has featured regularly in New Mandala’s posts and comments: Thailand’s king. If I can be immodest again, I would suggest that New Mandala has made a valuable contribution to opening up international public discussion of the highly political role of the Thai monarchy. In the wake of recent spate of media discussion of the monarchy in international outlets such as the Economist, it is easy to forget just how infrequent and euphemistic this was only a few of years ago. Some critics have asserted that New Mandala is obsessed with the royal family. Again, I think this is missing the point. Inevitably a project interested in the proliferation and multiplicity of power has to deal with the figure that used to lie at its symbolic centre. We have no hesitation in responding vigorously, and with occasional irreverence and parody, to those who attempt to deny the legitimacy of alternative circuits of power and re-assert the primacy of the royal centre. In the spirit of New Mandala’s provocation, I must say that I am often frustrated at the quite limited extent to which most academics outside Thailand are willing to take up this challenge. This caution, perhaps even timidity, despite the compelling intellectual appeal of the subject, its political importance, and, most important of all, the enduring human rights abuses that underpin the defence of the monarchy is profoundly disappointing. I accept that many of us feel constrained by the very real academic, personal and material connections that we have with Thailand. There are real risks, but there is safety and power in numbers and in the institutional status that many of us enjoy. We now have the ability, and the technology, to explore the fractures that have opened up in Thailand’s royal edifice and create new academic norms of frank and open discussion. It would be tempting to wait until the impending reign of King Vajiralongkorn. With his companion Captain Fu Fu and his sartorially minimalist consort, he will provide a much easier target for critique than his father. But I think it would be mistake to wait. The current king may well become a more a more potent ideological force long after he dies. Given the groundswell of discussion that is emerging in Thailand itself, it is time for the international academic community to play a much more active part in deconstructing the royal taboo.

In closing, I’ll make one more specific comment about New Mandala. I acknowledge that our focus has been strongly oriented to Thailand, just like my presentation tonight. We have also hosted a lot of discussion about Burma, but much less on Laos and, in particular, Cambodia. Of course, this is a reflection of our expertise and our current research interests. We are currently taking action to address the imbalance, by recruiting volunteer country editors for both Cambodia and Laos. We would also welcome contributions from any of you working on these countries, and of course, those of you who work on Thailand, Burma or southern China. If you want to get to a large audience with an interest in mainland southeast Asia quickly, New Mandala is a great vehicle. There is the real chance that more people will read your contribution in a week, than would read one of your journal articles in a lifetime. Both Nich Farrelly and I are genuinely committed to providing as diverse and open a forum as possible. We would particularly welcome material that critiques, or even parodies, the positions we, or any of our other contributers, have taken. Southeast Asian emerging new mandalas contain many potent sources of inspiration and motivation and we hope to reflect as many of them as we possibly can.

About Andrew Walker