No Rules of Engagement
Interest Groups, Centralization and the Creative Politics of “Environment” in Thailand

by Larry Lohmann

first published 1 July 1993


In contests over the environment in Thailand, effecting political change in intercultural space has meant both insisting on one’s own translations of events and using the translations of others. That entails making strategic alliances with diverse others in which the uniqueness of each’s interests, abilities, political role and systems of thought is acknowledged by all.

This article was published as a chapter (pp. 211-234) in Counting the Costs: Economic Growth and Environmental Change in Thailand, edited by Jonathan Rigg and published by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.




I'm not interested in wildlife conservation, but the sea is my dinner bowl.

Village headman, Baan Laem Makham, Trang


In Chanthaburi, five thousand villagers take over the provincial stadium to protest a land reform programme they say would take away their ownership of degraded forest lands.1 Along a dozen river valleys in North Thailand, upstream and downstream farmers prepare to join city dwellers, tour boat owners and conservationists in protests against deforestation, diversion, irrigation projects, hydroelectric dams and the release of industrial and municipal effluents.2 In Kanchanaburi and Lampang, villagers battle the dumping of toxic wastes from Bangkok and air pollution from lignite-burning electricity-generating plants.In Sakon Nakhorn, villagers living in a recently-gazetted national park lie down in front of a bulldozer sent to destroy the headman's house in the course of a successful attempt to resist eviction. In Chiang Mai, villagers stave off a Highway Department plan to widen the old Lampoon road by "ordaining" the old maai yaang dipterocarp trees lining it. In Trang, activists brace themselves for the fight against the digging of a deep-sea tuna port which would put paid to years of effort to bring back mangroves, sea grass, and coastal fisheries. In Bangkok, the Metropolitan Water Authority chief provokes anger by announcing that the city will have enough water only if farmers refrain from planting the second crop officials have been encouraging them to cultivate for decades.3

The conflicts of which these incidents are a part lie at the core of what from a Western point of view would be called "environmental politics" in Thailand. What are they about and where are they leading?

The fast answer is that they are the result of a new wave of attempted centralization of power over land, water, forests and air.4 As rural land and water rise in economic value, influential business, political and bureaucratic circles redouble their efforts to assert control over them through elimination of community land and fishing rights, promulgation of new laws placing greater control over land and water in the hands of central authorities, seizure by force, purchase or foreclosure. As villagers come to be viewed less as objects of benign neglect than as active competitors for water, land, waste sinks, and wood who contribute little to economic growth, they are transformed, with the help of international development agencies and transnational corporations, into a "problem" to be removed by resettlement and "absorption" into more "productive" employment in urban areas. Industrialization, previously subsidized by squeezing the rural sector, is increasingly subsidized by shrinking it. Villagers, however, hardly take these attempts to redefine and remove them passively, often fighting back for local control and subsistence security, backed by other groups with a wide variety of agendas including students, rural doctors, intellectuals, and pressure groups. Where they prevail, efforts to preserve forest, soil and water continue to take place largely within local commons regimes, many of whose forebears have proved their workability over generations. Where they fail, such efforts, insofar as they are undertaken at all, end up being administered at a higher level.

Such centralized management is difficult, relatively untried, and, unlike commons arrangements, of unproven success even in attaining narrow technical objectives.5 Once embarked on, moreover, it is hard to reverse. The resultant decline in local power to benefit from local land and water entails increasing local neglect of local rice fields, fishing grounds, woods, canals, muang faai irrigation systems, and community forests, and desuetude of the political-cultural-technical crafts of stewardship.


Understanding how these sorts of battles are actually fought and resolved, however, and what their results are likely to be, requires looking beyond the centralization-decentralization dichotomy toward the systems of thought -- vocabularies, language-games, moral economies, and ways of achieving solidarity, settling conflict, reaching consensus, and translating others' statements -- which different interest groups (politicians, bureaucrats, the military, local business, transnationals, villagers, intellectuals) use at different times in their confrontations with others over land and water.

Provisionally, each such system of thought can be treated as if it were the current "native language" or "final vocabulary" of a certain group interacting with itself on a "protected site" relatively unthreatened by external forces or surveillance.6 One of the starkest and most politically instructive contrasts between such systems of thought is that between the present "home" systems of rural villagers defending working commons arrangements and those of Western consultants working on resource-use planning for international agencies or transnational companies active in Thailand. Considered as ideal types, the two groups' current "native languages" are particularly easy to contrast in that they occupy positions at different ends of each of three interlinked axes.

The commons - public/private axis

The commons - public/private axis features at one end a form of social organization which rests much authority over land, water, agriculture, and forests (as well as time, law, language and personhood) with the local community and the institutions and discourses it has created.7 This is the form of organization that appears in such widespread rural institutions as Northern Thailand's traditional muang faai rice irrigation/forest conservation system, community forests of various kinds (paa puu taa, paa chaa, paa chai soi, paa chum chon), communal pasturage in fallow rice fields, many coastal fishery traditions, and even the informal planting of maai yang near villages.8 It is also a framework which can allow or promote what may look from the outside to be "individual ownership" (for example, informal jap jong land tenure)9 or "free" or "public" extra-community use of, say, local fisheries, although these forms of use are also ultimately community-sanctioned. Finally, this framework allows for alliances with other communities in drawing boundaries between the rights of neighboring communities, as with meetings between muang faai groups in the same watershed or between villages with neighboring community forests.10

This form of social organization tends to bring with it a strong felt connection among morality, knowledge and locality. Locals are likely to be wary about addressing nonlocal issues and about assuming interchangeability among communities; at the same time, outsiders may initially find the local social order opaque. Community ends or goals are likely to be concrete and locally-specific, with weight often given to subsistence security and local values over economic gain and abstract political rights. Villagers who may not be unduly exercised at witnessing gross violations of national law may be galvanized into immediate mass protests by the bulldozing of a small local shrine to make way for dam construction or the barring of a child from grazing his family's buffalo in a local woodland. If the means necessary for achieving a concrete social end turn out to be unacceptable or unavailable, the end is likely to be revised through consensus. Individual preferences and goals are also kept in line with available local means through social interaction. In short, this social order might be called topian, or situated (as opposed to the unattainable ideal of an utopian social order, or one pertaining to no-where, in the original sense of the word, enshrined in the ideologies of international financial institutions, economic consultants and the like).

Local commons regimes can be recognized in, but not replaced by, state law and administration. Land documentation supplementing jap jong rights, as well as state certification of a community's right to manage its own forest, are usually welcomed by commoners. Nor are commoners hostile11 to state laws protecting their commons from outside predation; small fisherfolk, for example, may be far more zealous in compelling the enforcement of fishing limits than officers of the law.12 But internal interference which would remove the authority of the community over its commons and place it in some extra-community organization is generally resisted.13 Similarly for advice and expertise: as one Sakon Nakhorn village leader puts it, "Ideas from outside are useful, but we'll decide which ones to act on, since it's our struggle."

At the other end of the commons - public/private axis are forms of social organization associated with state administration and conceptualization of land, water, time, language and personhood.14 This form of social organization finds a natural home in offices, ministries, universities, schools, laboratories, airplanes, and private urban homes. It places authority over what it calls "resources" in such locations through the construction of nationwide or worldwide webs of science, economics, utilitarian ethics and "private citizenship", and attempts to usurp the craftsperson's knowledge into that "knowledge about knowledge" which Peter Drucker associates with management.15 Its products include not only large-scale "socially-beneficial" projects such as hydroelectric dams, land zoning schemes, national parks and giant plantations, but also minor irrigation schemes, agricultural extension programmes, and the like.

This type of social order tends to reduce local communities to locations on a global grid by using decontextualizing devices such as quantification to isolate and highlight common or interchangeable elements. This enables the construction of "locality-neutral", manager- or traveler-friendly manuals or encyclopedias; makes possible progressive notions of history and "development"; and facilitates practices of speaking for members of alien communities -- all of which further strengthen the position of central authorities. The resulting morality and knowledge are detached from particular village localities yet legitimized for use in discussing them. Within this social order, neither social nor individual ends are locally-specific. Social ends take the form of abstractions such as "national interest", "development" and "satisfaction of projected aggregate energy demand", or "high per capita use of toilet paper", all of which can be treated as sharable among groups, facilitating preference aggregation, cost-benefit analysis, and centralization. Individual ends, meanwhile, take the form of the abstract, infinitely-increasing needs of neoclassical economic theory. Both are resistant to revision, even in office settings. National planning institutions focused on efficient means presuppose fixed social ends or at least uniform conflict-resolving or consensus-attaining mechanisms, and a sharp divide between theory and practice; continual adjustment of ends and means and theory and practice to each other would threaten their enterprise. In parallel fashion, neoclassical theorizing about maximizing individuals -- together with welfare and environmental economics -- requires the postulation of fixed individual "preferences".

The selection of generic items for concerted efforts at maximization is typically, in the case of "resource management", counterproductive.16 This is not only the case for massive plantation schemes or national parks. Even such apparently "small-scale" and locally-directed projects as one- or two-square-kilometre "irrigation" storage reservoirs in the North are leading to lowered water tables, dying lamyai trees, increased evaporation losses, loss of dry-season vegetables, irrigation losses through soaking into the dry ground, loss of silt, and so forth, at the same time that they facilitate the diversion of water to corporate enterprises such as golf courses, provoking angry resistance among muang faai villagers downstream. Isolation and valorization of a few simplified, decontextualized goals such as "national pulp demand", in addition, leads to an ever-expanding list of social realities being placed in the omnibus category of "obstacles" to their achievement. In the eyes of many visiting Western consultants, the resistance of millions of Thai villagers to plantation schemes, the utter unenforceability of grandiose management plans, government unwillingness to redistribute land, patron-client systems and corruption all become relatively marginal "obstacles" or "bugs" in the implementation of planning documents whose major outlines are considered to be "well-thought-out".17 The social organization of the community of such consultants thus leads to an approach to land, water, forests and air which is utopian in two related senses: first, in that it aspires to being, if not quite unsituated, then at least independent of any particular village context; and second, in the sense that it is unrealistic, impractical or "romantic" as a solution to the problems it itself poses.

An orality - literacy axis

A second axis along which one can sketch a contrast between the current "home" system of thought of Thai commoners and that of Western consultants is an orality-literacy axis. Among villagers fighting for control of local land, water, and so on, internalization of oral practices usually predominates over internalization of the practices which writing makes possible. Writing, to be sure, has an ancient role in village life as a cultural medium. But it is used less for composition, thinking, important communications and the negotiation of power relations among ordinary villagers than among, say, university graduates or World Bank consultants. Indeed, in Thailand much written knowledge is assigned to the category of wichakaan, which in Thai has such strong class (and classroom) overtones that it would be difficult to speak of "village" wichakaan. Among most villagers, what a literary orientation encourages -- dissection, isolation, pauses for definition, analysis, subordination, the filing away of knowledge -- takes second place to what an auditory, memorization-oriented oral one encourages -- aggregation, externalization, transparency and presence, redundancy, close audience contact, fulsomeness, the constant assimilation of the past into the present.18 To the occasional frustration of voluntary organizations and others whose thought processes are dominated by literate procedures, villagers often think and communicate in narratives rather than abstract outlines and express considered thoughts on struggle and strategy not in lists but in dense, rhythmically-balanced precepts requiring context and an understanding audience to fill in their meaning. Responding recently to a question about whether the "bright lights" hypothesis applied to his village, for example, one Sakon Nakhorn elder replied "mai yuu phuea kin tae kin phuea yuu", expressing not just attachment to the land, but a rejection of the idea that villagers' wants are infinite; an Ubon villager encapsulates decades of experience with market dependency in the epigram khon jon tham hai khon ruai ruai khon ruai tham hai khon jon jon ("the poor make the rich rich and the rich make the poor poor"). Villagers also adapt new movements and campaigns for conservation into songs and buttress the moral authority of their protests by offering contemporary interpretations of tales of the Buddha's life, "end-of-the-world" stories, and oral legacies of the era when the Communist Party of Thailand dominated resistance to the government in much of the countryside.19

The less restrictedly visual orientation of ordinary villagers' largely oral culture means that, as one voluntary organization worker puts it, "when we [intellectuals] close our eyes, everything goes dark, but when villagers close their eyes, they can recall things (nuek awk)."20 Skills connected with the maintenance of the commons are preserved not in abstract, formalized manuals promising a self-contained, universally-applicable, and universally user-friendly short-cut to knowledge for those who have sufficient classroom background, but above all in people (for example, muang faai leaders) whose technical, psychological, moral and political abilities tend to come wrapped up in a single package. Sustained and critical thought about care for the commons and about the strategies for action against those who would take them away is carried out not on the written page but in the open air at village meetings. While often hierarchical, such discussion features constant confirmation of consensus and lengthy face-to-face sessions in which ends and means alike are open to change.21 This type of oral-based reasoning is closely tied to the particular form of village democracy used, one which has little in common with parliamentary forms.22 The situated or topian nature of villager morality and knowledge is also connected with an awareness of being at a linguistic loss when outside a shared context of understanding among familiar hearers, whereas writing-dominated thought more readily assumes a widely-extended, mostly invisible community of interlocutors and powerholders.23

A personality - impersonality axis

A third axis which can be used to help draw a contrast between Thai villagers' and Western consultants' present "home" systems of thought can be somewhat misleadingly characterized as a personality-impersonality axis. ("Misleadingly" because "personal" here does not have the usual Western connotations of "pertaining to the sphere of private life".) Thai relationships are more finely and importantly defined by kinship, fictive kinship, pronominal structure, entourages, and certain species of friendship than Western (public) ones, which tend to be defined in more detail through roles in organizations and state and market institutions.24 Even when farmers take on impersonally-defined roles such as those of "independent producers", or when the powerful adopt roles of "ministers", "capitalists", "executives" or "merchants", these roles are usually softened or warped, and leverage gained for one side or the other, by using kin and fictive-kin terms to transmute relationships among them into patron-clientage.25 While such vertical, kin-flavoured relationships are crucial, a type of friendship among rough equals tied together by circumstance rather than ideology or even intimacy is also important. Throughout, face-to-face contact is critical not only to trust but to the formation of relationships themselves. Entourages, organizations and movements alike acquire particular physiognomies and often cannot be characterized without reference to particular persons, offering a sharp contrast to Western ideals of impersonal organization. Supposedly special-purpose organizations often end up pursing more general participant interests, as when a group of fisherfolk in Trang formed to buy petrol wholesale for new motorized long-tail boats ended up as leaders of efforts to conserve a community mangrove forest. And while there are no time-saving short-cuts by which one can avoid establishing personal ties, people's eagerness for them and the relations of obligation which surround them often makes the establishment of personal networks remarkably swift.

A personalized view of social action tends to delegitimize Western technocrats' self-justifications that they are unsituated, interchangeable agents of disembodied forces and needs and are merely applying universally-valid techniques after political decisions have been made elsewhere. Viewing consultants as characters in detailed local narratives renders implausible their claims that their backgrounds, companies' interests and personalities are irrelevant to their work, that as agents of impersonal forces they have the right to investigate others without being investigated themselves, that they are effective but not responsible, and that the information they hand out is "objective". From this point of view, international agencies' frequent claims that their past failures are not likely to be repeated sits uneasily with their continued reliance on non-local experience. In general, villagers' personalized relationships and oral, local orientation buttress what Rorty calls a civility- or conversation-oriented rather than an nonpersonalized, algorithm-oriented notion of rationality.26

Despite the broadly topian culture of many villages, the systematic and widespread nature of current threats to the commons, together with long experience of seasonal or periodic migration and relative freedom of the press in Thailand, has helped villagers to see themselves as actors in not only village-level but also regional- and even national-level narratives of resistance. But personal, face-to-face networks of people with similar practical experience are probably more important tools and forums for their solidarity than "imagined communities" grounded in abstractions, calculation and maximization, or ideological affinity. Villagers in Ban Pong Nam Kham upstream of Chiang Rai, for example, rely on the experience of relatives displaced by Bhumibol dam in Tak in their mobilization against a dam planned to divert water from the Kok river to the Chao Phraya basin; along the Li basin in Lampoon, monks have organized a weeks-long village-to-village walk to help educate people about the local water crisis; and khon muang on the Mae Chaem in Chiang Mai have traveled far upstream to join Karen villagers at Wat Chan village in protests against the Forest Industry Organization/Jaakko Pöyry corporation scheme to log the watershed pine forest there. One village in Sakon Nakhorn even dispatches what villagers jokingly refer to as a "commando" squad to assist in demonstrations of displaced villagers in other provinces in the Northeast.


Treating systems of thought as if they were static entities associated with particular interest groups may tell us something about the types of moral outrage such groups feel and their styles of reasoning, solidarity, social control and internal decision-making. However, it reveals little about the political dynamics which occur when these systems of thought collide. Nor does it explain the influence those collisions have on each system of thought itself. Nor, finally, does it help us to remember that attachment to any particular system of thought may be only one moment in power or identity struggles for groups whose consciousness and strategies, like Otto Neurath's imaginary ship, are constantly being rebuilt at sea using whatever materials are available.27 Yet all these are crucial in analyzing the politics of land, water, forests and air in Thailand and elsewhere.

The central fact about interaction between systems of thought such as the two I have described is that it does not usually take place in a neutral matrix. To use a familiar system of thought is to rely on familiar procedures for settling conflict or reaching consensus. To use another system is to rely on different procedures. Thus when a difference over the use of land or water arises between users of different systems of thought there may be no way of resolving it according to procedures agreed upon by both sides. (That is one reason why the fight over what forums are going to be used -- environmental economics, trading position, local rights -- shapes politics at least as much as the arguments and forces mobilized within any particular forum.) In such cases the conflict may be allowed to continue. Or it may be left behind by both sides' developing a third system of thought and setting aside (temporarily or permanently) the ones they had been using. Or it may be abandoned (temporarily or permanently) by one side's adopting the other side's system of thought while dropping (temporarily or permanently) its own.28 Or a complex combination of such responses may be adopted.

Modernists, like other dominant groups, are often for structural reasons less aware of or interested in the "hidden transcripts" of subordinate groups than subordinate groups are aware of or interested in theirs. For this reason and others they find it difficult to give up the idea that a neutral background for all systems of thought exists, arguing that without such a centralization-legitimizing background, shifts from one system of thought to another would have no rational basis, being achievable only through coercion, brute force, "mere emotive persuasion", inexplicable change in taste, or quasi-religious conversion. What appears to be widespread reluctance to use modernist forums such as those of economics and science, they insist hopefully, is more likely to be a mere "breakdown in communication" or an instance of "people talking past each other", which, while regrettable, is remediable by better translations.29 Traditionalists, meanwhile, while they are more inclined than modernists to accept the fact that a neutral matrix is lacking, sometimes draw the moral that those who use traditional systems of thought must demand that all interactions with others take place within them.

Translation, however, cannot create a neutral matrix where none exists previously. To translate is to use a familiar system of thought, thus to remain loyal to familiar ways of justifying things. It cannot always bring about agreement with an approach that relies on a different system of justification.30 Yet to urge that any interest group adhere only to the system of thought it is currently using is a move of equal political bias or naïveté. Just as a neutral matrix for all systems of thought would reduce the number of possible battlegrounds on which villagers could contest power over land and water, so would a decision by villagers to use only their "home" systems of thought, restricting their chances of political success. Whatever its "own" current system of thought, each interest group needs to be effective in at least the indirect use or manipulation of many others. Coming to grips with the complex dynamics of the confrontation and mutual appropriation and invasion of such systems and the reasoning, solidarity, organization and strategy to which their (always sui generis) interactions give rise is crucial in evaluating the possibilities for alliance-building which they constrain and enable.

Where interaction between systems of thought is new, the result is likely to include some bewilderment and chaos. This is occasionally the case in Thailand today, where some groups, despite long histories of mediated mutual influence, are only now, forced by industrial expansion and economic growth, beginning to confront each others' systems of thought directly on the same local stages, forcing them to articulate the bases of their mutual resistance in new ways and to become aware for the first time of how their appeals look to others. The first meeting in Bangkok in October 1991 between villagers protesting the Pak Mun dam and Executive Directors of the World Bank responsible for taking a decision on further Bank funding for the project had so little precedent, for example, that each side had difficulty in understanding the context of some of the questions put to it by the other side.31 Where encounters have become routine and all parties have settled into a stable pattern of manipulation of opposing systems of thought, on the other hand, inter-system differences sometimes disappear from view, to be replaced by what may look to be a mutually agreed-upon set of rules of engagement. Phuu yai have been living with phuu noi for so long with considerable mutual benefit, for example, that it is sometimes argued that they share a single patron-client mentality or moral economy.

The contemporary Thai politics of land and water, however, is best characterized by neither of these patterns. Most parties, and particularly subordinate groups, are well aware of the diversity of systems of thought on the current scene, their advantages and disadvantages to themselves, and the necessity and possibility of changing them and manipulating their interaction to advantage. Their general goal is to frame their actions in, and mold them to, systems of thought which are familiar, friendly to their projects, and used by the powerful. This entails a twofold strategy: first, to use powerful systems of thought but make them friendlier; second, to use friendly systems but make them more powerful. When it is necessary and possible, each side is only too willing to contest openly the rules of engagement proposed by its antagonists or to change the subject when asked a question in a language which disadvantages it.32

Using powerful systems and making them friendlier

Using systems of thought which must be adhered to by the powerful and making them friendlier can be looked at either as infiltration of the systems and manipulation of their symbols or simply as actions which take into account their own appearance when translated into powerful systems' terms.33 Like all others, this approach carries both risks and possible rewards. Among the systems of thought used for this purpose by villagers, their allies, and their opponents, are those associated with the following:

  • Buddhism By tying their actions to the chawptham which is founded in millions of bits of everyday religious action by millions of people (including daily alms-giving, temple festivals, and so on) actors hope to advance their own interests and thwart or redirect those of others. Dr Pradit Charoenthaithawee of Mahidol University silenced military rumblings over the visit to Thailand of the Dalai Lama in February 1993, for example, merely by observing mildly that the Dalai Lama was a monk and Buddhist leader, and all real Buddhists knew well that monks never make trouble for anyone. Thereafter military leaders couldn't voice objections without undermining their own moral authority as Buddhists and risking moral outrage directed against themselves. Similar reasoning has underlain the practice of "ordaining" (buat) trees as part of popular movements against logging in Chiang Mai, Buriram, Trad, and elsewhere. Military assaults on "conservationist" monks such as Phra Prajak Kutajitto have meanwhile generated enormous indignation and controversy.
  • Signed statements, maps, science, and other paraphernalia of the dominant typographic culture At the negotiations over the khor jor kor resettlement programme34 at Pak Chong in 1992 and again in the March 1993 Bangkok negotiations aimed at getting the government to take responsibility for the destruction associated with the Pak Mun dam, villagers insisted on obtaining written undertakings from high government officials rather than the sort of verbal promises which, although villagers have traditionally felt more emotionally comfortable with them, have usually been broken in the past. This new toughness and confidence in their ability to turn some elements of a writing-oriented culture to advantage is found among other peasant groups as well. Together with other farmers across the Northeast, villagers in Lup Lao village in Sakon Nakhorn, with the help of voluntary organizations, are attempting to adopt the techniques of Rapid Rural Appraisal and of land reform for their own purposes in struggling against the khor jor kor resettlement and the sor por kor "land reform" programme. Though they sometimes find it difficult to point correctly to the location of a particular community forest, paa chaa, or thii rai on the map they have drawn, they feel this stratagem will be useful in proving to the authorities both that they can take care of their local forests and that they have no land to give outsiders once land has been internally redistributed by the community. Elsewhere, villagers have attempted, with mixed success, to appropriate the rhetoric of hydrology, development and "national income", though not, apparently, cost-benefit analysis.
  • The new fashion of "environmentalism" While villagers' claims of prior occupancy are proving less and less effective in legitimizing resistance to eviction or destruction of their commons, seizing the "conservationist" banner, which has now built up considerable legitimacy through peaceful and uncontroversial advocacy by the middle class, the media and others, increasingly helps to thwart élites' appropriation of land and water without inciting their violence. Although, as veteran development worker Bamroong Boonpanya points out, what appears to city folk as "ecological" is, in country terms, often just a way of life,35 even the remotest villages have been quick to appropriate words such as anurak, niweet witthaya, paa thammachaat and paa chum chon in their struggles over forests, land and water.

By the same token, the interest shown by subscribers to the glossy conservation-oriented monthly Sarakhadee and others in the rare pine forests of Wat Chan in Chiang Mai makes it more difficult for the Forest Industry Organization and Jaakko Pöyry to pursue their logging project there. At Haad Jao Mai in Trang, similarly, villagers, recognizing the appeal of the dugong to middle-class nature-lovers, regularly refer to the rare mammal in their efforts to mobilize support for their efforts to save local fisheries as well as the beds of sea grass on which the dugong depends. Villagers at Thung Thong and Laem Makham further up the coast make similar use of the beaches on which sea turtles lay eggs. Finally, growing concern with "the environment" has enabled academics such as Shalardchai Ramitanondh of Chiang Mai University to turn the tables on state authorities and ask why, under new schemes which would divert increasing amounts of water to the cities, the caretakers of watersheds are being penalized, while those who merely consume massive quantities of water are being rewarded.36

Using a related strategy, villagers in the Kaeng Sua Ten area of Phrae have turned in logging equipment to the authorities in order to preempt the claim of dam-builders that the dam should be built because local Yom river watershed "is being destroyed anyway".37 Here, as elsewhere, it is hardly accurate to picture villagers as born-again environmentalists. More plausible is the hypothesis that they recognize that the actions of conservationists, students and even police have resulted in a new "environmentalist" consensus within which they must seek to be represented. To pass up this opportunity by continuing to log would undermine their moral authority in the eyes of others; no one in Bangkok would then be outraged if they were flooded off their land. Calling a halt to logging, on the other hand, will lend credit to other actions they may need to take in the future, such as demonstrations, seizures of district offices, road blockades and so forth.

The representation in dominant systems of thought of villagers (past or present) as "conservationists" serving the conceptual and material needs of outsiders (élites, the middle class, English speakers or Westerners) has the potential of itself becoming a resource villagers can exploit to build up power in their localities. If Orientalism can be defined as the construction of others as a resource with which to construct yourself, and Whig historiography as writing about the past to serve present purposes, then this amounts in effect to Orientalizing the Orientalists and Whiggizing the Whigs.38

  • Élite "face" and rules of intra-élite relations Subordinate groups need to be able to thwart élites without eliciting the violence which results from élites' "face" being threatened or damaged. This can be achieved through not pushing élites too far, through working within élites' own systems of thought (or having friends do so), or through having insurance. Villagers often need to find ways of surfing on the nominal support of certain élites without being sucked into their power plays or becoming dependent on or discreditable by them. To cite one example: annoyed by villager resistance to logging and by criticism from a wide variety of conservationists, the head of the Royal project at Ban Wat Chan, if morally outraged at the possibility of losing face, could easily respond with violence. Yet for the chief of the Crown Property Bureau (say) to intervene with the finding that the project is simply not profitable when pursued in an environmentally responsible fashion would save the project head's face and reaffirm respect for the system that gives him rights and powers over lesser individuals. Hence it is to villagers' advantage to encourage intellectuals to provide "environmental data" on Wat Chan to the Bureau. In another example, several top technocrats saved face over the political defeat of the Nam Choan dam in 1988 by reinterpreting it as having been caused by an unfavourable outcome of cost-benefit analysis.
  • Popular revulsion for violence Whenever possible, both villagers and their antagonists must avoid being painted as violent. Hence the presence of Bangkok journalists often provides village protesters with insurance against state beatings and assassinations. At the same time, officials typically seek to represent protesting villagers as irrational, violent mobs endangering property and the state.
  • Utilitarian democratic ideals Figures such as Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai cannot openly repudiate the democratic notions on which they base part of their legitimacy and thus their power. As long as Chuan is in office, therefore, village activists can fruitfully demand that his government respond to its constituency or hold public hearings on development projects. On the other hand, Chuan can at the same time easily manipulate utilitarian sentiments to élite advantage. In March 1993, for example, he attacked opponents of the Pak Mun dam who were blocking roads by saying that "any practice that makes other people suffer is undemocratic.... The government does not have to always follow demands which do not benefit the public."39

Using friendly systems and making them more powerful

All sides in battles over land and water also insist on translating alien actions and concepts into their "home" systems of thought to domesticate them and shade out unfriendly elements. This helps to expand or maintain those system's influence and also to rally the troops who use them. At the same time, the various sides attempt to inveigle users of other systems into entering into these translations, knowing this will be to their advantage.

Thus, Westerners and Thais who hold to a public/private dichotomy in conceptualizing possible uses of land, forests, water and air tend to view commons regimes as exemplifying "management disorder" or "open access",40 commons themselves as "waste" or "underexploited or inefficiently used resources", orality as "ignorance", and a personalized social order as "corruptible" and "anarchic". In their language, a proposal such as that recently put forward by Jaakko Pöyry, that a "mere five per cent" of Thailand's land area be devoted to eucalyptus plantations to "meet pulp demand" appears morally reasonable, while a peasant's plea for five rai to do what she wants with lacks any moral force because it may interfere with the "national interest". Trying to lure villagers and others into discussing "mitigation procedures" or "cost-benefit analysis", developers are fond of interpreting resistance as an attempt to "go back to the past".

Commoners typically counter such moves by identifying public/private hegemony over land and water, as well as many government documents, as a cover for plunder, a betrayal of morality, a flouting of common sense, and an interference with rights to place.41 In the terms of their language, the demand for five per cent of the country to plant eucalyptus may be morally suspect, but to expropriate a local peasant's five rai would be indefensible. Often viewing government documents with suspicion, and not falling in with the old-new, traditionalist-progressive oppositions of which the authorities speak, which are based on a commensurability assumption they may not share, villagers, like their opponents, often simply change the subject.42

One outstanding example of the stratagem of insisting on one's own translation of events and impelling others to "read" that translation occurred during the Pak Mun controversy when villagers welcomed World Bank Executive Directors to Ubon Ratchatanee to "see for themselves", unmediated by technical documents, the dam and resettlement sites and to talk face-to-face with affected villagers in their own local context. Blessing the Directors in a traditional bai sii ceremony, the villagers were elaborately polite and respectful, perhaps practicing a form of what Arjun Appadurai calls "coercive subordination": if the Directors voted against the project, they would prove themselves saviours; if they voted for it, they would show themselves scoundrels.43 As long as they were with the villagers, the Directors' own preferred interpretation of events -- that they could not be held responsible in any way for the project, which would in any case provide necessary energy to benefit a lot of faraway people -- was not even allowed to get off the ground. In the end, the Board vote went against the villagers, but in an unprecedented move several Directors did refuse to support further Bank loans for Pak Mun, a development which economist Susan George described at the time as the only positive sign she had seen in any of the Bank's actions over the past years.44

Perhaps the most stunning, risky, yet apparently successful recent instance of the stratagem of insisting on one's own translation of events, however, occurred in Pak Chong during the negotiations over khor jor kor in July 1992. There, emboldened by the victories of the democratic movement in May, non-government organizations and villagers chose the meeting room, demanded to be represented in numbers equal to those of government representatives, and flouted the rules for encounters with phuu yai by smuggling tapes outside to waiting villagers so they could monitor the progress of the meeting. To participate at all, the top officials present had no choice but to conduct themselves largely within the villagers' system of thought. It is perhaps more a reflection of the spirit of the time than a general lesson for strategy that the meeting led to villagers' being allowed to return to the homes from which they had been evicted, and the eventual cancellation of the khor jor kor programme.45

Dominant groups, of course, are usually quick to attempt to retranslate successes of this type into a language more favourable to their interests, often with the collaboration of opponents concerned not to cause others to lose face. Recent years have seen international and national development agencies, often under the influence of non-governmental organizations, adopt words such as "participation", "accountability", "appropriate local techniques" "alternative plans", "process", and now even "commons".46 All of these can be viewed as attempts to translate pressures from orality-oriented local grassroots into a written, abstract, algorithmic form friendly to central authorities, and to invite dissident groups to acquiesce in this translation. Once these terms enter centralizers' language, of course, the way is open for villagers and commoners to contest their meaning, at the same time trying to take advantage of them as best they can to direct the debate back toward local power or to slow down development projects. And so the dialectic continues.


If it is to an interest group's advantage both to insist on its own translations of events and to participate in them under the translations of others, or to attempt to shrink the influence of alien systems of thought while in the meantime using them for its own purposes, it can hardly do both in its own name. Needing the appearance of sincerity, the interest group cannot claim openly to accept both its "own" and an opposing system of thought. Credible when speaking as an occupant of a particular role in society, it cannot plausibly and safely speak as if it occupied all roles.47 Powerful when its voice is joined to a variegated chorus of others, it loses its power, and risks being targeted by forces of repression, if it demands that everyone sing in unison with itself.

In contemporary Thailand, interest groups fighting large dams or forestry projects therefore gain when they can make strategic alliances with diverse others in which the uniqueness of each's interests, abilities, political role and system of thought is acknowledged by all, yet each group acts in a way which will benefit the others in their own terms. Thus villagers can speak in their "own" voice at meetings and demonstrations, expanding its influence, while newspapers expose abuses, dissident academics speak credibly in scientific or economic language against corporate consultants,48 students take the political offensive, bureaucrats fight turf wars within ministries, phuu yai approach rin at the top levels and non-government organizations arrange forums at which the diverse members of alliances learn how to coordinate with and use one another better, look at themselves from the points of view of the other groups present, and maintain mutual respect across systems of thought.49 This is one of the lessons of Nam Choan, the logging ban, and other successful "environmental" campaigns of the recent past, and one of particular importance for the commoners whose struggles are likely to be such a central part of the future Thai political scene.50

Notes and references

1 The Nation, 22 March 1993.

2 Khanakammakaan prasaanngaan ongkorn ekachbon phattana chonabot phaak nuea, Yutasat lum naam nai ngan phattana: miti mai khong phuminiweetwatthanatham, ms., 1993.

3 Bangkok Post, 22 December 1992, 18 November 1992.

4 Previous waves include the centralization of Bangkok control over Northern forests of a century ago, which contributed so notably, through the concession system, to deforestation.

5 Orr, David, Ecological Literacy and the Transition to a Postmodern World, SUNY Press, Albany, 1992; Project for Ecological Recovery (PER), The State of Thailand's Forests Two Years After the Logging Ban, Bangkok, 1992.

6 The phrase "final vocabulary" is due to Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge, 1989 and "protected site" to James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.

7 Fairlie, Simon, Nicholas Hildyard et al., Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Earthscan, London, 1993; Ivan Illich, Gender, Pantheon, New York, 1982; Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, Cambridge, 1990, Bonnie McCay and James M. Acheson, eds., The Question of the Commons, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1987; Daniel W. Bromley and Michael M. Cernea, The Management of Common Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational Fallacies, World Bank Discussion Paper 57, Washington, 1989; Fikret Berkes, Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-Based Sustainable Development, Belhaven, London, 1989; Shui Yan Tang, Institutions and Collective Action: Self-Governance in Irrigation, Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, 1992; Donald Worster, ed., The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, Cambridge, 1988; Elinor Ostrom, Crafting Institutions for Self-Governing Irrigation Systems, Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, 1992; Daniel W. Bromley, ed., Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice and Policy, Institute for Contemporary Studies, San Francisco, 1992; William Blomquist, Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California, Center for Self-Governance, San Francisco, 1992.

8 Chatchawan Tongdeelert and Larry Lohmann, "The Muang Faai Irrigation System of Northern Thailand", The Ecologist 21 (5), 1991; PER, op. cit.; Local Development Institute, eds., Paa chum chon, Local Development Institute, Bangkok, 1992.

9 Cf. Jeremy Kemp, "Formal and Informal Land Tenures in Thailand," Modern Asian Studies 15, 1981, 1-23; Ruth T. McVey, "Change and Consciousness in a Southern Countryside," in Strategies and Structures in Thai Society, ed. by Han ten Brummelhuis and Jeremy H. Kemp, University of Amsterdam, 1985.

10 Phii faai meetings of muang faai organizations sharing the same watershed, for example, can settle conflicts over water distribution. Similarly, the inhabitants of a Northeastern village will not extend their community forest's boundaries so that they encroach on a neighboring village's community forest if the latter is recognized to have a prior claim to the tract.

11 As happened in 1989, after much struggle, when the Forestry Department circumvented national law in order to recognize the forest stewardship rights of Chiang Mai's Huay Kaew village, which were threatened by an MP's resort development. Even in Choeng Doi village in Sakon Nakhorn, whose residents have had to resist continuing official eviction attempts, forestry officals' periodic checks on the state of the community forest (which, like the rest of the village, is part of Phu Phan National Park) are not strenuously objected to, in that they lend credibility to villagers' conservation efforts.

12 In places along the Trang coast, villagers are prepared to drive away boats which flout even the spirit of fishery laws (for example, commercial boats using equipment proscribed inside a 3000-metre limit which sit just outside that limit using lights to attract fish from further inshore).

13 Even attempts by sympathetic voluntary organizations to defend Lampoon villagers' state-given "rights" through the official legal system have given villagers the impression that outsiders are trying to "catch us under a chicken-basket".

14 The Ecologist, op. cit.; Daniel W. Bromley, Environment and Economy, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991; Louise Fortmann and John W. Bruce, Whose Trees? Proprietary Dimensions of Forestry, Westview, Boulder and London.

15 Peter F. Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society, Butterworth, London, 1993. Cf. Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin, eds., Dominating Knowledge, Oxford, 1990; Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Tariq Banuri, eds., Who Will Save the Forests?, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993.

16 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, North Point, San Francisco, 1977 makes this point eloquently.

17 E.g., International Institute for Environment and Development, The Khun Song Plantation Project: A Socio-Economic and Environmental Analysis and Recommendations Towards the Establishment and Management of a Plantation in Chanthaburi Province by Shell Companies of Thailand, London, 1990; Jaakko Poyry Oy, Ban Wat Chan Integrated Rurald Development Project: Main Report, Helsinki, 1991; World Bank statement on Pak Mun dam, World Bank Watch, 30 September 1991; "Environmental Fact Sheet" on Pak Mun, World Bank, Washington, 29 August 1991; "Environmental Issues", World Bank, Bangkok, 21 September 1991; Project for Ecological Recovery, "Critical Analysis of World Bank Responses to Issues Raised by Thai NGOs Concerning the Pak Mun Hydroelectric Project, Bangkok, 31 October 1991; Larry Lohmann and Bank Information Centre, "Reply to World Bank Statements on Pak Mun", Washington, October, 1991. The Shell consultant's response to the question of how its elaborate land-use zoning plan for Khun Song would be enforced was that "adequate measures for enforcement would be written into the plan"; Jaakko Pöyry's admission that land reform would be necessary if their proposal were to succeed did not cause the company to withdraw when it became clear this was not forthcoming; the World Bank has consistently fallen back on the position that a "build now, study resettlement and environment later" approach is sufficient for Pak Mun and other dams. In all such cases, inability to recognize a reality outside the documents dovetails neatly with institutional self-interest. Cf. Willi Wapenhans et al., "Effective Implementation: Key to Development Impact" confidential discussion draft, the World Bank, Washington, July 24, 1992.

18 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, London, 1982.

19 Klum lamphun sewanaa et al., Khaaw saw anurak sapayakorn thammachart, Lampoon, 1992.

20 Cf. Ong, op. cit.

21 Not having to take on the other's job of looking at oneself entails less of a private-public split in the definition of individuals as well as in that of forests and water; this helps make such flexibility possible (A. R. Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, ed. by Michael Cole, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1976).

22 Sanitsuda Ekachai, "Village Democrats," Bangkok Post, 9 September 1992.

23 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, London, 1991); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1962..

24 A person occupying a position specified in an American job description as Deputy Assistant Production Manager for Sound Equipment would appear on a Thai passport as "employee"; while the only short English translation of khun, thaan, eng, kae, mueng, naai, phii, nong, lue and yuu alike is "you".

25 Jeremy Kemp suggests that contemporary patron-clientage "is a response to the destruction of the old order rather than a continuation of it. Such a view is well in accord with the theory that the prominence of patron-clientage is linked to the penetration of a capitalistic economy, though as modern capitalism emerges it is reduced once more" (Kemp, "The Manipulation of Personal Relations: From Kinship to Patron-Clientage" in ten Brummelhuis and Kemp, op. cit., 1985, 67, cf. Fred Block, 1992). Tension between bureaucratic roles and personally-mediated patron-client entourages, of course, has existed at least since the Ayutthaya period and especially since the Fifth Reign; tension between market-defined roles and personal relations probably just as long. David Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986.

26 Cf. Richard Rorty, "Science as Solidarity" in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Cambridge, 1991, 35-45. Chuea, a word usually translated into English as "believe", and even more so chueafang, "heed", have strong overtones of personal relationships (in this case hierarchical ones), indicating a partial dependence of what one should "believe" on one's social position. This is in contrast to the current Western view, of course, according to which, in the words of Foucault, "the membership of scientific discourses in a systematic ensemble and not the reference to the individual who produce[s] them [stands] as their guarantee." With the advent of homo economicus, personhood threatens to be submerged in "preferences", which are fixed awaiting the application of rules.

A recent incident in Laem Makham village in Trang illustrates the centrality of personal relations to "conservation" issues. The village, together with several others in the area, was located in the midst of a local charcoal company's mangrove concession. Several years earlier, local villagers, concerned at declining inshore fisheries which were driving more and more of their number into employment at the charcoal firm, began, extralegally, to replant and conserve a "community forest" in the middle of the concession. In a series of shrewd moves undertaken in cooperation with a Trang voluntary agency, they enlisted the provincial governor, local schoolchildren, local newspapers and middle-class people in replanting efforts, and last year the Royal Forestry Department sidestepped national forestry law by officially recognizing the legitimacy of the villagers' stewardship of the community forest. Fisheries have rebounded, bureaucratic attentions have begun to be lavished on the village due to its growing fame in the media, and villagers are optimistic about the future if they can maintain power over the mangroves. One morning in March 1993, however, villagers discovered that employees of the charcoal firm had cut ten boats' full (over 10 tons) of mangrove from a contested and unposted area which villagers nevertheless had advertised to be a part of their community forest. The employees who had cut the timber were sent back to the factory and the manager, a former local schoolteacher, summoned to a special meeting at the village headman's house. Profuse in his apologies for the incident, yet constantly pointing in exculpation to a rough photocopied A4 map of his concession on which the community forest was not marked, the manager claimed that his employees (luuk nong) had merely unwittingly exceeded his orders to cut outside the community forest. The villagers resisted using the map as a basis for discussion, and did not think it likely that any of the employees had not been briefed about the community forest, but also did not bring up a possible alternative hypothesis: namely, that the manager gave deliberately vague orders on the chance that his employees would cut in the contested area and thus provoke a reaction which would enable him to gauge the limits of the villagers' power over their community forest. In any case, the manager stated he was willing to relinquish the timber and pay compensation for it if the villagers did not take the matter to the authorities. This sum was not inconsiderable (1300-1500 baht by villagers' calculations), and could have been used for more planting activities. On the other hand, the villagers also were in a fairly strong position with the authorities. Yet, surprisingly, the villagers decided after some deliberation neither to take the matter to officials nor to accept compensation for the cut timber. Instead, they told the manager that they were forgiving him this time (khrang nii hai aphai), but that he had to return and tell his luuk nong that the area they had cut was community forest and was not to be touched again. This was, explained later, to make him la-aai jai (ashamed) of the phuu yai and to show nam jai (good will), and to lead him to greater awareness of the situation (tham hai mii jit samnuek maak khuen). The manager then left. Next morning, villagers posted the cut area as community forest.

It was difficult for the group of Thai and foreign outsiders who were on hand for this incident to assess the subtleties of the villagers' decision and its effects, but the overall impression was that this was a victory for the villagers in their effort to conserve the mangroves. The villagers' action bolstered the legitimacy of their conservation struggle in a way which would make another such violation a moral outrage. It created a personal obligation in the manager at the same time it held back from pressing him too far (khuut riit) in a way which might provoke face-saving or income-saving violence. (In 1986 a villager had been murdered after complaining in writing to a government official about a local charcoal factory's logging of the community forest.) Finally, it prevented villagers from being tempted or divided by the possibility of exchanging their community forest for cash. Whatever its underlying truth, however, the incident demonstrates clearly that in the real world of the Thai village it is impossible to disentangle "rational resource use" from the art of manipulation of local personal relations the villagers of Laem Makham undertook.

27 E. R. Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma, London, 1954; Frantz Fanon, Essays in a Dying Colonialism, New York, 1956; Jorge Luis Borges, "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" in Labyrinths, New Directions, New York, 1964.

28 Larry Lohmann, "Interpretation, Development and Paradigm Shift," ms., Bangkok, 1985; Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, 1979.

29 David Pearce, ed., Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy, Earthscan, London, 1991; Jean-Paul Barde and David Pearce, eds., Valuing the Environment, Earthscan, Earthscan, London, 1991.

30 Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Duckworth, London, 1988; Rorty,, op. cit.; Clifford Geertz, "Local Knowledge: Fact and Value in Comparative Perspective" in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Harper, New York, 1983.

31 Encounters between non-governmental organizations and villagers protesting eucalyptus and between members of, say, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and villagers fighting logging have often displayed similar tentativeness.

32 This pattern helps explain why genuinely new breakthroughs in "environmental politics" -- the defeat of the Nam Choan dam, the logging ban, the recognition of community forests -- seem more possible in Thailand today than in countries such as Germany, Japan or the US. Yet, together with the coming attempts to uproot large numbers of rural and underprivileged people, it also perhaps helps account for the increased likelihood of violence observers such as Chai-Anan Samudavanija foresee in the coming decade (Bangkok Post, 19 March 1993). "When the people are disenfranchised from the policy-making process from the beginning," Rangsan Pornpan writes, "protest is the only course open" (Manager, February 1992, p. 11).

33 Whether one is "really loyal" to such a system or is merely "pretending" - insofar as this question makes sense - is not directly relevant to the political issue. Nor is it generally relevant whether one hopes to "convince" others or merely to manipulate the system within which they must work in order to constrain their actions. Nevertheless, true believers in a system of thought who become convinced of some truth through the machinations of outsiders can become important allies simply because they are likely to act on their beliefs more zealously than others.

34 For information on this programme see "The Programme for Agricultural Land Distribution for Poor People Living in Degraded Forest Reserves", Thai NGO Committee on Forest and Land Problems in Northeast Thailand, Bangkok, 1992; "Forest Peoples in Thailand: Forced Eviction and Resettlement," comp. by Project for Ecological Recovery, Bangkok, 1992; Larry Lohmann, "Thailand: Land, Power and Forest Colonization" in Marcus Colchester and Larry Lohmann, eds., The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993.

35 Sanitsuda Ekachai, "Silenced No Longer," Bangkok Post, 17 August 1992.

36 Bangkok Post, 16 December 1992.

37 Nantiya Tangwisuttijit, "Seeing the Forest for the Trees," The Nation, 9 June 1991.

38 In a similar fashion, many Westerners Orientalize Sulak Sivaraksa, one of the senior Bangkok spokespersons for ecological sanity, using him, and Buddhism, as a resource for their own battles and searches for truth; shrewdly, he appears to welcome this "resourcification" of himself and Buddhism, since it itself can in turn serve as a resource for his own struggles in Thailand. Such procedures, of course, are not without risks.

39 The Nation, 9 March 1993.

40 Cf. Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science 162, 1968, pp. 1243-1248 and the literature which has resulted.

41 Suntha Singmano, the headman of Kuang village in Lampoon, for instance, identifies political and bureaucratic leaders' lack of silatham and chawptham, as well as violations of jariit prapheenii (particularly in the sexual realm) by ordinary people, as behind lack of rainfall, loss of fertility, destructive logging in muang faai watersheds, and so forth. If he could make little headway against government nak wichakaan in arguing reasons for aggregate decline in water availability, they, by the same token could make little headway against him when he refers to the centrality of personal morality in maintaining fertility of the land, and this is surely at least part of the reason he insists on these points. Another village leader in Lampoon, confronted with a government scientist brandishing photocopied documents purporting to prove that a tannery in a local industrial estate could not possibly be contaminating the water in the surrounding area, impatiently retorted aw jamook ma dom: take a whiff yourself.

42 Even if they are lured into debating issues within the dominant system of thought, of course, villagers are not likely to be at a loss for ways of trying to make it more friendly by showing that, for example, what they are doing as commoners is actually more "up-to-date" and in the "national interest" than what the "modernizers" propose.

43 Arjun Appadurai, "Topographies of the Self: Praise and Emotion in Hindu India" in Lila Abu-Lughod and Catherine A. Lutz, Language and the Politics of Emotion, Cambridge, 1992; Thiang Bantao et al., Centre for Coordination of Protection of Mun River, letter to citizens of the countries represented by Executive Directors of the World Bank, 12 December 1991.

44 Campaign efforts on the part of Thai and international non-government organizations were of course also important in influencing the vote, which has helped pave the way for the Bank's unprecedented withdrawal from the Sardar Sarovar project in Western India announced in spring 1993.

45 Sanistuda Ekachai, op. cit.; "Victory for the Rural Poor", Bangkok Post, 9 July 1992.

46 "Participation" and "accountability", for example, can be interpreted as principles which promise to universalize personalized village ways of achieving consensus while in fact ensuring that central authorities direct and permit the actual procedures used. (A certain degree of village control, of course, can be advantageous to developers insofar as it takes the heat off service-delivery agencies.) In the course of formulating a Forestry Master Plan for Thailand, for example, Jaakko Poyry provided carefully-controlled forums for non-government organizations to provide "policy suggestions" but completely ignored draft forest policies NGOs had formulated previously outside its jurisdiction. In general, "calls for alternative plans" is a way of translating unrest at the grassroots into a form which can either be ignored or coopted by planners, while "a concern with process" is a usually rather desperate attempt to capture in algorithmic written form what is usually lost in the move from oral- to written-dominated discourse. None of this, of course, is a new development in politics. As James C. Scott observes, "Peasants, rulers seem to have realized, should state grievances only when explicitly invited to by their superiors, as in the cahiers de doleances before the meeting of the Estates General" (op. cit., p. 63).

47 Villagers who travel to Bangkok to demonstrate against expropriation or environmental destruction, for example, are sometimes said to be suea nawk paa ("tigers out of the forest"), but this is even more true of non-governmental organizations who join mass protests by villagers upcountry and still more true of traveling foreign environmentalists who independently make appointments with Thai government officials to hector them about how important it is to "conserve forests" or "secure minority rights". While the villagers merely have some difficulty in finding their feet in the urban environment, the NGOs lay movements open to the charge of being led by "outside agitators" at the same time they undermine their own credibility to speak from the position of concerned middle-class intellectuals. The foreign environmentalists' actions tend not only to be politically irrelevant or dangerous but also to detract from the effectiveness they might have in other arenas.

48 Technical studies of development projects are generally easy to discredit on their own terms, as any seasoned and technically literate reader of World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Commonwealth Development Corporation, Tropical Forestry Action Plan, Food and Agriculture Organization, Shell, or Jaakko Pöyry documents knows. It is also now absurdly easy to point to cheaper technical "alternatives" to dams and nuclear energy, relying on accumulated experience and the exploding literature on energy- and water-use efficiency promulgated at the international level by such institutions as the Rocky Mountain Institute and the International Institute for Energe Conservation. But those not accredited as nak wichakaan may find it difficult to make headway against fraudulent science in a formal seminar in Bangkok or anywhere else. This is one more reason for questioning the Enlightenment assumption of developers and sociologists such as Basil Bernstein that a decontextualizing, "unbiased", analytical system of thought is necessarily and unambiguously to be identified with liberation and effective resistance. What wichakaan, or teaching wichakaan, amounts to in any given political context depends on what systems of thought and activist bases are operative as well as many other factors.

49 In such an alliance, nothing about the political role of a group can be "read off" from a group's characteristics considered independently of the alliance. Thai NGOs have sometimes oscillated between two related positions: first, striving to be "one with villagers", or to push them into action from behind; second, lamenting that as part of an intellectual culture they are destined to be used as a tool against villagers by international agencies and transnational corporations. Both positions derive from an assumption that it is the nature of systems of thought considered as isolated "texts" in a library rather than also as positions in a seething inter-system space which determines their political role. This assumption, like the assumption that translation is not ideological, is difficult but necessary for intellectuals to resist.

50 It is also a lesson which has not escaped, say, foreign technical consultants. Jaakko Pöyry's Forestry Master Plan team, for example, had not been in Thailand long before realizing that its utopianism (according to which "a common national vision" on forests was to be agreed, means determined, and projects executed in quick succession) was pretty much irrelevant to the staggering variety of political battles being waged over forests and land by the local bureaucrats, politicians, businesspeople, villagers and non-governmental organizations with whom they were supposed to cooperate. Instead of continuing to pretend to be a technical appendage to a unified body of forward-looking policymakers, the Master Plan team accordingly transformed itself into a self-consciously political agency using and being used by a select and shifting group of other elites - in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Democrat Party, the wood and pulp and paper industries, academia and NGOs.

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