268th Meeting – Tuesday, November 8th 2005
Is “Taization” equivalent to assimilation?
perpetuation of ethnic boundaries in Northern Thailand
A talk by Olivier Evrard
Present: Nelly Rolhion, Bodil Blokker, Jean Peyle, Manus Brinkman, Carl Samuels, Keiko Samuels, Peter Hoare, Wiphaphorn Intharat, Jitlada Rattanapan, Richard Nelson-Jones, Guy Cardinal, Carina zur Strassen, Sebastien Tayac, Valery Zeitoun, Tony Kidd, Siripan Kidd, Hans Bänziger, Billy Doerner, Louis Gabaude, Dale & Judy Harcourt, Martin Momuda, Carl de Cleene, Jean-Claude Neveu, Mia Strickland, Max Woodfin, Mark Bleadon, Thomas Ohlson, Bernard Davis, Somkuan Piboonrat, Christel Perkins, Micah Morton, Paul Chambers, Jancy Abra, Rebecca Welden Sithiwong, Brad Teeters, Lawson Lebore, Mark & Dianne Barber-Riley, Casey McHugh, John Cadet, Darren Gordon, Mark Osborne, Sunita Winitkoonchu, Benjawan Sisot, Markus Steeb. An audience of 46
Evrard is an anthropologist at IRD (Institut de Recherché pour
le Developpement, previously called Orstom) and is currently
the Social Research Institute,
The full text of Olivier’s talk:
concerned here by the Taization of hill tribe people, and more
precisely of the so-called Mon-Khmer speaking groups (Lawa and Lua in
I wrote Taization without an “h” precisely to distinguish the traditional influence of the Tai culture and populations (which can be Lao, Siamese, Yuan, Lü etc.) over the highland groups from the integration process implemented by the State (which I will then refer to in the case of Thailand by the word Thaization, with an “h”). These two phenomena can sometimes be related or interlinked together, but they do operate in quite distinct ideological contexts.
refers to the process by which the
On the other hand, Taization refers to a wider and older kind of interaction between the highland groups and the Tai populations: Siamese, Lao, Yuan, Lü, Tai-Dam, Tai-Daeng, Tai-Khao etc. This interaction creates the conditions for a political and symbolic pacification of the relations between the müang and its margins, but it does not always mean that the ethnic identities of the highlanders are simply erased on the long-term or simply staged in a contrived way.
my argument is the following: taization does not only refer
to the integration of the hill tribes into the Tai social space, it
to a wide range of social processes through which ethnic differences
softened, sustained or even increased. I will focus here on Khmu
Northern Laos, but most of the processes which I will describe can be
also to other Mon-Khmer groups in
than 500,000 people assert a Khmu identity in
their demographical and historical significance for the social
sentence summarizes quite well the image given by most of the
studies that have been undertaken in
As is often the case, it was missionaries working around Luang Prabang between 1955 and 1965 who wrote the first truly ethnographic accounts of the Khmu. Those works are of great interest for anthropological matters, but they are always written with a very pessimistic tone. For example, William Smalley spoke about the “cultural apathy”, the “social disintegration” among the Khmu, and even wrote that they had “little zest for life”. (Smalley 1965 : 13). First of all, it seems doubtful to consider apathy as a social phenomenon (Lindell, 1977: 9). Second, it is also worth noting that these comments made by William Smalley are partly contradictory with those made nearly one hundred years before by the French explorer Francis Garnier who noticed that the Khmu populations were treated as equals by the Lao and were considered as the guardian of the edges and as fierce warriors (Garnier, 1885). It is probably colonization which has contributed to impoverish the Khmu populations. Third, we must also notice that while the situation observed by William Smalley is quite similar to that described in the Northeast, near the Vietnamese border, it is completely different from what is observed in the Northwest part of the country, were Khmu villages are said to be traditionally more prosperous.
The lack of field research in different parts of the country probably explains why the Khmu are only considered as an under-class in the Tai society. It also explains why taization is viewed as a process of disintegration and assimilation of Mon-Khmer groups. Vietnamese Marxist ethnographers have put the stress on the first dimension and, on the basis of so-called “survivals” or “relics” of social organization or of rituals, they have tried to reconstruct a mythical original Khmu society. A similar perspective, though much more sophisticated, has been developed by Choltira about the Lua of Nan (Choltira, 1991). In the case of the Vietnamese authors writing about the Khmu, the stress is put on the miserable conditions of life of these populations. This then allows the writer to extol the great socio-economic achievements of the communist State, and focus on the inescapable disappearance of old customs: « The old Khmu religion has served its time: the principles which sustained it no crystallized in any dogma, can no longer resist the momentum of modern requirements. This certainly does not exclude the persistence here and there of certain very much simplified cult forms which are still celebrated for conscience’s sake (…). There is no doubt however that even these residues are destined to disappear in the near future » (Dang Nghiem Van 1973: 133-134).
French anthropologists have also worked among the Mon-Khmer populations on the Lao-Vietnamese northern border. They have suggested that in the case of the Tai Dam, Black Tai, the lower clans were indeed some Mon-Khmer populations that had been first defeated and then integrated into the Tai system. The famous anthropologist Georges Condominas has summarized this process by saying that the taization, which he also called “the müang internal dynamic” finds its origin in “the conquered peoples’ hope of reaching a better status by copying their masters, was encouraged by the desire of the latter to achieve Taization of the native peoples (Condominas, 1990: 71)
These analyses, however, ignore several questions which one may, and indeed one should ask: if these populations have been living side by side with the Tai for nearly one thousand years, and if it is true that they are considered as an under-class and progressively assimilated, then why do they still exist? Why do we still find not only Khmu but also Lawa, Lua, Lamet and so on? What does make the ethnic boundaries reproduce themselves?
to Grant Evans, who conducted some fieldwork among the
Tai-Dam and Sing Moon populations of Samneua [Ksing Mool], in
Twenty years before
Evans’s fieldwork, the French anthropologist Charles Archaimbault
had worked on
the main seasonal rituals in
I would like to
extend Evans’s analysis about the duality of the Taization
process by using my
own data gathered in the Nam Tha valley, in
The Nam Tha valley
was considered in the past as the western border of the Lan Xang, that
old Lao kingdom. Rather than a real border in the modern sense, it was
zone for several local powers: the Tai-Lü polities from the Sip
Song Panna in
the North (either Müang Sing or Müang La), the Tai-Yuan
contrasts (which are also linked with economic ones) have contributed
creation, among the Khmu populations, of cultural discontinuities, or
subgroups named tmoy in Khmu language, which are distinguished
costumes, their religious practises and their oral literature (Evrard,
Such subgroups offer very interesting examples for understanding the
nature of the taization process. Khmu populations have borrowed - or
not - some
of the cultural attributes of the Tai populations with whom they were
contact. Those attributes have then been combined with other identity
such as forms of basketry or linguistic peculiarities, to produce some
ethnic borders among a population who, however, claim to have the same
identity. In other words, the Khmu appropriate the Tai influence by
own concept, resources or categories. They not only “copy”
A similar idea is
developed in the linguistic field. We know now that four decades ago
populations, who traditionally have a toneless language, started
tones as a result of contact with the neighbouring tonal languages,
Tai. Swedish and French linguists have worked on Mon-Khmer languages to
precisely understand how these tones appeared. In the Khmu case, they
shown that the appearance of tones was linked to the fusion of
voiced first consonants. However, in the case of other populations,
are different: Mon-Khmer groups of
Other fields of research can easily support the idea that taization does not simply erase the ethnic differences. Migrations and their social impact for instance, which are traditionally very important in the social life of the Khmu, are worth considering here.
Historically, most of
the young Khmu migrants were going to work in eastern
At this stage, some of you may argue that even if taization is not simply an acculturation and even if Mon-Khmer populations do keep some “creative autonomy” in the process, these few examples still demonstrate that the general dynamic is more or less one of a progressive encompassment into the political, economical and cultural Tai system. I have never attempted to challenge this general dynamic nor did I try to reverse it and suggest that Mon-Khmer populations were having a dominant position in the interethnic system. Rather, I am trying here to better explain the modalities of this process and to explain why, despite it, separate ethnic identities still exist. Moreover, we should not forget that what we can observe now is only one aspect of a cultural influence which was probably playing in both ways in the older times.
Among the Tai Yuan populations for instance, we find elements of a matrilineal descent system for some specific territorial spirits (Rhum, 1994). For Choltira, such a phenomenon is probably the result of the influence of the matrilineal oriented descent system of the first Mon-Khmer inhabitants of this area (Choltira, 1991). While the Lawa have a clearly patrilineal system today, the Lua of Nan have kept a matrilineal system of descent.
Another example can be found in the myth of Tao Chüang. This mythical hero, whose name is mentioned in the Tai chronicles as the founder of such cities as Chiang Saen and Chiang Mai, is also very important in the Khmu mythology. The French linguist Michel Ferlus showed that the Lao versions of such myths were incorporating traditional Khmu mythical elements and were transforming them to fit within the Lao ideological framework (Ferlus, 1979). A systematic comparison of Khmu and Tai oral literature remain to be done but it would most surely show that the latter owe quite a lot to the former and that the emergence and the reproduction of separate ethnicities has taken place in a long history of exchanges and close contacts.
I would like to draw on my own experience in the Nam Tha valley to show how the taization process can both perpetuate the ethnic boundaries and favour the assimilation of some small fractions of the highlanders into the Tai society.
The Nam Tha valley has for a long time been inhabited only by Khmu and Lamet, who traditionally build on the main mountains, above 1000 meters. Relations between these highland villages and Lao people first took place on the basis of economic specialization. Lao boatmen were coming from Luang Phrabang at the end of the rainy season to barter the rice grown by the Khmu, or some forest products against iron bars, tissues or salt. The Nam Tha valley then became the granary of Luang Phrabang. Some small trading posts developed and progressively scattered upriver because the competition between the Lao paddlers encouraged them to go always further upriver in the valley. At first, such localities were usually multiethnic: Lao paddlers married Khmu or Lamet wives and the latter brought with them some relatives to settle near the river. When the locality had stabilized and matured, more Lao migrants arrived to join the first settlers. A Buddhist temple was then constructed and the multiethnic origin of the locality was then completely forgotten. Such processes are still going on today in the most Upper part of the valley, where one can observe quite recent villages founded by Lao boatmen married with Khmu women and followed by several houses from each ethnic group (the Khmu usually being more numerous). The political context in which these recent villages are created today differs significantly from previous periods but the interethnic organization remains basically the same as it was many centuries ago. The Lao usually specialized in trade while the Khmu practise slash-and-burn agriculture in the hills around. This is the logical extension, at the village level, of a kind of ethnic specialization that has been operating at the regional level for a very long time.
When living in different villages, as it is the case for most of them, highlanders provide the lowlanders with rice and natural products while the latter barter hand made object such as tissues, that they make by using the cotton given by the highlanders. Such bartering usually occurs directly inside the villages, between two houses whose members know each other well. Such specialisations have contributed to perpetuate the ethnic boundaries for each group is associated with a specific range of economic activities and is dependent upon the other for its own livelihood. The relations then created between households can go beyond the economic sphere and take the value of a kin relation.
When two families
barter together, their members say that they are phi nong in
language, or tai haem in Khmu language. Sometimes, to mark the
value of this relationship, some villagers can use the word phi nong
klork. It is said that such a relationship must be periodically
by the participation in the rituals done by the other family, and by
together the blood of an animal killed for this special event: this can
for instance when an new house is built, for a marriage or for
cross involvement of both sides in their own rituals does not at all
ethnic boundaries, quite the reverse. It allows these differences to be
staged. For instance, a Tai man invited
to a Khmu ritual may conduct a small ceremony to recall the soul of his
by reciting some mantra that he has learned at the temple. In this
small ceremony will be entirely disconnected from the whole Khmu
which usually involves the slaughter of a buffalo or at least of a pig.
Khmu men can take part to Tai rituals by themselves bringing and
some animals, or by bringing rice beer in big jars while the
Conversely, such relationships can also favour the assimilation of some fragments of Khmu populations in Lao villages. In the Nam Tha valley, because most of the Tai villagers cannot make their living solely through the boat trade they also have to farm. Since there is a shortage of land available for wet rice agriculture, most of them practise slash and burn agriculture, just as the Khmu do. But, once again, since their village territories are usually smaller than those of their neighbours, and since this kind agriculture requires quite long fallow periods to be efficient, these Tai people must regularly borrow some of their Khmu neighbours’ land. This can happen either through a collective agreement between two villages or through an informal agreement between two families known well to each other. Then, one can observe for some years Tai families living side by side in the fields with Khmu people, sharing pieces of the same land. If he has enough Khmu friends or phi nong, a Tai man can then secure his access to land and even provide some land for other people in his own village.
This kind of
agreement cannot, however, solve all the problems. With demographic
and also with degradation of the soil in the lower part of the valley,
pressure increases and Tai villagers have to go further and further to
land for cultivation. Some years, the people can then live quite far
other during most of the rainy season. When such a situation coincides
conflicts of interest among several working groups, the village splits
of its members settle near their fields, usually upriver. Before they
the migrants must be sure that they will be able to get enough land in
following years in order to maintain a long fallow system. The
which are undertaken with the neighbouring Khmu villages at that time
prompt some Khmu families to decide to go down and to settle with the
families. Such criss-crossed migrations are quite difficult to
the oldest villages, but, as I said previously, they can be observed in
most recent ones, for the current ideological context favours the
recognition of multiethnicity as a positive aspect of the new
Indeed, a very
important question concerns the influence of the
During the fifties
and the sixties, communist troops succeeded in gaining control of most
mountainous areas of
After the war, many Khmu men who had fought with the communist troops were rewarded with high administrative and political positions. In Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Bokeo, and even Luang Phrabang, it is not unusual to see Khmu men in the position of province or district governor; cao kwaeng or cao müang. (But this is also true for other minority groups as well). Some of their relatives were given rice fields in the lowlands or cattle. However, most of the Khmu still suffer from poverty and a lack of access to basic public services. In other words, they still have a marginal position in the Lao society. This is because the general dynamic of the taization process has not been fundamentally altered; it is only operating in a different ideological context.
The promotion of this
“official” Buddhism mostly takes the form of collective
during which, under the supervision of local monks and officials, the
reject all their spirits and throw them out in to the forest. We cannot
here really about a conversion to Buddhism but rather of a use of
political ends, in order especially to secularize the social life and
religious practises which prevent the people getting access to the
life. However, in the same process, one can also still observe more
behaviour. Some high-ranking local families adopt symbols or markers of
Buddhist culture without being really converted to Buddhism. For
1996 I observed that the Head of Nalae district, in the Nam Tha valley,
born in a Khmu village, used to add the prefix thit at the
his name. This title is usually given to men who have stayed some time
Buddhist temple as monks, which was definitely not so in his case. His
intention was not to hide his original ethnic identity but to show a
respectable status. This is a very old practice as the first French
in this area had already noted at the end of the 19th
some Khmu leaders were giving money to some pagodas of the lowlands,
of them were even building temples in their own villages. This did not
however that the villagers were converted to Buddhism and the pagoda
had no monks living inside. In addition to the voluntary propagation of
among the ethnic minorities promoted by the new
In 1976, four
different Khmu villages merged and settled downhill near the road
Once upon a time, while they were fishing in the river, Lao villagers found a statue of the Buddha in the water. They tried to pull it up on the bank of the river but they did not succeed. They asked help to other Lao villages but they still were unable to get the statue. Finally, they called the villagers of a small Khmu village, Ban Lan, where there were only seven families, one of them being leaded by a widow. Those Khmu villagers made a rope using black rice straw and the widow weaved a tissue to carry the Buddha statue. They dived in the river and were finally able to get the Buddha statue outside of the river. The pagoda of Müang La was built at that time to receive the statue of the Buddha (Pha chao Sing Kham) which had been taken from the water by these Khmu villagers and you can still see it inside the main building.
There are several
versions of this myth, usually longer than this one. All of them have
less the same structure and contents with references to typical Khmu
themes, such as the magical properties of black rice, or the presence
of an old
widow as a leader. In another version, it is said that the families of
belonged to three different clans, which is a clear allusion to the
organisation and the matrimonial rules (for more details, see Lindell
1979). Another very interesting aspect of this myth is the symbolic
which it is setting up. The Müang La temple where the Buddha
statue is now kept
has been built on a small hill known as
Since its creation,
Ban Samikhisay has been subject to a heavy religious acculturation on
This does not mean, however, that the villagers have really converted to Buddhism in both content and form. There is no temple in the village and few villagers go to the pagoda of Müang La except during the New Year ceremonies. Since 1975, even though the Buddhist ideology has mostly spread against the traditional religious system, it has not fundamentally changed the religious practises of the villagers. The so-called Buddhist identity of Samikhisay villagers appears as a very localized phenomenon in which the myth of origin, by mixing some fragments of Buddhist legends with typical elements of Khmu myths, plays the role of an active cognitive element which orients the collective representation of ethnic identity. Such an example, which can be found elsewhere in the country in different interethnic contexts, shows how the ethnic identities have historically been included in the Tai social space without loosing their own specificity. In this case the statue of the Buddha is playing a pivotal role through which a group of animist villages are included into the religious topography of the main neighbouring pagoda.
During this talk, I have tried to show that the idea of taization should not be considered only as the influence of the Tai over the highland groups, or as the complete assimilation of the latter. We also have to acknowledge a process of appropriation of this influence by the highland ethnic groups following their own values or principles. In other words, we have to give them back some of their autonomy in these processes, instead of considering that they are going to disappear in the near future. What Grant Evans calls the duality of the taization process is indeed a form of inclusiveness: distinct identities are kept and reproduced but at the same time they get ordered into a hierarchy inside the same whole social and ideological space. That is why taization is an ambivalent phenomenon, which does not necessarily erase the ethnic differences but can also contribute to transform and to sustain them through the creation of new markers, stories or categories which then provide the basis for the evolution of the interethnic relationships.
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, Being Kammu,
My Village, my Life,
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RHUM Michael R.
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After an informed question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where, over drinks and snacks, members of the audience engaged Olivier in more informal conversation.