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Wandering Dhamma and transnational fellowship: Addiction, aspiration and belonging among ethnic minorities on the northern Thai border


This article compares Buddhist and Christian approaches to the drug problem among ethnic minorities in northern Thailand. Government programmes implemented through Buddhist monasteries aim to construct Buddhist subjects and realise agendas of national security in border areas. Yet, they also offer development support and access to resources. Meanwhile, gospel rehabilitation centres provide much-needed drug treatment services while drawing highlanders into transnational spheres of Christian fellowship. Consequently, I argue that the relationship between ethnic minorities and the state can be defined in terms of aspiration and negotiation, as well as resistance and evasion, as has been previously argued in the literature.

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1 Turbulent times and enduring peoples: Mountain minorities in the South-East Asian Massif, ed. Michaud Jean (Richmond: Curzon, 2000).

2 Schendel Willem van, ‘Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: Jumping scale in Southeast Asia’, in Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of knowledge and politics of space, ed. Kratoska Paul, Nordholt Henke Schulte and Raben Remco (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005), pp. 275307 ; Scott James C., The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

3 For just one example, see Sakboon Mukdawan, ‘Controlling bad drugs, creating good citizens: Citizenship and social immobility for Thailand's highland ethnic minorities’, in Rights to culture: Heritage, language and community in Thailand, ed. Barry Coeli M. (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2013), pp. 213–37.

4 Examples include: Tapp Nicholas, ‘The impact of missionary Christianity upon marginalised ethnic minorities: The case of the Hmong’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20, 1 (1989): 7095 ; Kammerer Cornelia, ‘Customs and Christian conversion among Akha highlanders of Burma and Thailand’, American Ethnologist 17, 2 (1990): 277–91.

5 Scott, The art of not being governed, p. x.

6 Lieberman Victor, ‘A zone of refuge in Southeast Asia? Reconceptualizing interior spaces’, Journal of Global History 5, 2 (2010): 336–40.

7 Jonsson Hjorliefur, ‘Above and beyond: Zomia and the ethnographic challenge of/for regional history’, History and Anthropology 21, 2 (2010): 191212 .

8 Formoso Bernard, ‘Zomian or zombies? What future exists for the peoples of the Southeast Asian massif?’, Journal of Global History 5, 2 (2010): 314–15.

9 Jonsson, ‘Above and beyond’, p. 208.

10 Veer Peter van der, The value of comparison (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), pp. 107–29.

11 See also Magnus Fiskesjö’s discussion of the place of mining in the history of the central Wa region in reference to agency, autonomy, and state formation, Mining, history, and the anti-state Wa: The politics of autonomy between Burma and China’, Journal of Global History 5, 2 (2010): 241–64.

12 Field data was gathered through participant observation and interviews at the two centres and in ten ethnic minority villages. Many of the village trips were undertaken as a volunteer with a local, non-faith-based NGO that worked with ethnic minority children, many of whose parents were too heavily addicted to drugs to care for them. Part of the time, I was assisted by an Akha translator. Otherwise, I communicated with informants in Thai.

13 Where appropriate, pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of informants and their villages and communities. Pseudonyms were not used in the cases of Operation Dawn, or the Golden Horse Monastery and its abbot, due to their easily identifiable characteristics. Thai words have been transcribed in accordance with the revised rules of the Royal Institute's System of Phonetic Transliteration.

14 Suksamran Somboon, Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia: The role of the sangha in the modernisation of Thailand (London: Hurst, 1977); Platz Roland, ‘Buddhism and Christianity in competition? Religious and ethnic identity in Karen communities of northern Thailand’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34, 3 (2003): 473–90; Evrard Olivier and Leeprecha Prasit, ‘Monks, monarchs and mountain folks: Domestic tourism and internal colonialism in northern Thailand’, Critique of Anthropology 29, 3 (2009): 300323 . Scholars have observed a similar phenomenon in Burma whereby conversion to the Buddhist religion demonstrates loyalty to the state. See: Gravers Mikael, Nationalism as political paranoia in Burma: An essay on the historical practice of power (Richmond: Curzon, 1999); Hayami Yoko, ‘Pagodas and prophets: Contesting sacred space and power among Buddhist Karen in Karen State’, Journal of Asian Studies 70, 4 (2011): 1083–105; Horstmann Alexander, ‘Humanitarian crisis, religious nationalism and religious competition: Buddhist and Christian Karen in the Thai–Burmese borderland’, Encounters 4 (2011): 191–213.

15 Scott, The art of not being governed, pp. ix–x.

16 Appadurai Arjun, ‘The capacity to aspire: Culture and the terms of recognition’, in Culture and public action, ed. Rao Viyajendra and Walton Michael (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 59 .

17 Ibid., p. 69.

18 Formoso, ‘Zomian or zombies?’: 316.

19 Ibid.: 313.

20 Jonsson Hjorliefur, Mien relations: Mountain people and state control in Thailand (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 129 .

21 Sakboon, ‘Controlling bad drugs’, pp. 213–37.

22 Yama is the original name for yaba. Yama literally translates as ‘horse drug’. In July 1996 Thai authorities changed the name from yama, which has connotations of enabling the user to work tirelessly as a horse, to yaba, or ‘crazy drug’, in order to convey to the public the drug's harmful effects. Lintner Bertil and Black Michael, Merchants of madness: The methamphetamine explosion in the Golden Triangle (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2009), p. 2 .

23 Upon the onset of the HIV epidemic in Thailand in the late 1980s, the occurrence of the disease was highest in northern Thailand, with most cases concentrated in Chiang Rai province. Keereekamsuk Tawatchai, Jiamton Sukhum, Jareinpituk Sutthi and Kaewkungwal Jaranit, ‘Sexual behaviour and HIV infection among pregnant hilltribe women in northern Thailand, Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health 38, 6 (2007): 1062 .

24 Some observers have suggested that the subsequent return of the women and girls to villages spurred drug addiction and HIV-AIDS epidemics in villages throughout the region. Kammerer Cornelia and Symonds Patricia, ‘AIDS in Asia: Hill tribes endangered at Thailand's periphery’, Cultural Survival Quarterly 16, 3 (1992): 23–5.

25 Cohen Erik, ‘Toward a sociology of international tourism’, Social Research 39, 1 (1972): 164–82.

26 Lui Shao-hua, Passage to manhood: Youth migration, heroin, and AIDS in southwest China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

27 Zoccatelli Giulia, ‘It was fun, it was dangerous: Heroin, young urbanities and opening reforms in 1980s China's borderlands’, International Journal of Drug Policy 25, 4 (2014): 762–8.

28 Chouvy Pierre-Arnaud and Meissonier Joel, Yaa-baa production, traffic and consumption of methamphetamine in mainland Southeast Asia (Singapore: Singapore University Press; Bangkok: IRASEC, 2004). For a discussion of a shift in Hong Kong from opium to heroin and later, ‘club drugs’ such as ketamine and ecstasy, as a result of a post-Second World War opium prohibition, see Joe-Laidler Karen A., ‘The rise of club drugs in a heroin society: The case of Hong Kong’, Substance Use and Misuse 40, 9–10 (2005): 1257–78. A similar occurrence was observed as a result of British prohibition of opium in nineteenth and early twentieth-century mainland China, which resulted in the transformation of drug culture from that of opium used mainly for recreational and medicinal use, to the consumption of far more harmful drugs such as heroin, morphine, and cocaine; see Dïkotter Frank, Laamann Lars and Zhou Xun, Narcotic culture: A history of drugs in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

29 Choupah Deleu and Naess Marianne, ‘Deleu: A life history of an Akha woman’, in Development or domestication: Indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, ed. McCaskill Don and Kampe Ken (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 1997), pp. 183204 ; Rita Gebert and Chupinit Kesmanee, ‘Drug abuse among highland minority groups in Thailand’, in ibid., pp. 358–97, and Kammerer Cornelia A., ‘The Akha of the Southwest China borderlands’, in Endangered peoples of Southeast and East Asia, ed. Spongel Leslie E. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000), pp. 3753 , as cited by Lyttleton Chris, ‘Relative pleasures: Drugs, development, and modern dependencies in Asia's Golden Triangle’, Development and Change 35, 5 (2004): 922–3.

30 Chouvy and Meissonnier, Yaa-baa production, traffic and consumption; Lintner and Black, Merchants of madness.

31 Lyttleton, ‘Relative pleasures’: 916; see also Cohen Paul and Lyttleton Chris, ‘Opium reduction programmes, discourses of addiction and gender in northern Laos’, Sojourn 17, 1 (2002): 123 .

32 Cohen Anjalee, ‘Crazy for ya ba: Methamphetamine use among northern Thai youth, International Journal of Drug Policy 25, 4 (2014): 778 .

33 Sakboon, ‘Controlling bad drugs’.

34 Jonah Kessel, ‘The life and times of an addict in Myanmar’, New York Times, 2 Dec. 2012; Al Jazeera, ‘Myanmar's jade curse’, 101 East, 3 Dec. 2014, (last accessed 3 Dec. 2014).

35 Lizzie Presser and Fabian Drahmoune, ‘Drug addiction grows on Thai rubber farms’, Al Jazeera, 1 Dec. 2014, (last accessed 1 Dec. 2014).

36 Lyttleton, ‘Relative pleasures’: 928.

37 Lasco Gideon, ‘ Pampagilas: Methamphetamine in the everyday economic lives of underclass male youths in a Philippine port’, International Journal of Drug Policy 25, 4 (2014): 783–8.

38 Winichakul Thongchai, ‘The Others within: Travel and ethno-spatial differentiation of Siamese subjects, 1885–1910’, in Civility and savagery: Social identity in Tai states, ed. Turton Andrew (London: Curzon, 2000), pp. 3862 .

39 Jonsson, Mien relations, p. 17.

40 Vaddhanaphuti Chayan, ‘The Thai state and ethnic minorities: From assimilation to selective integration’, in Ethnic conflicts in Southeast Asia, ed. Snitwongse Kusuma and Thompson Willard (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies; Bangkok: Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2005), pp. 151–66.

41 Lyttleton, ‘Relative pleasures’.

42 Gillogly Kathleen, ‘Opium, power, people: Anthropological understandings of an opium interdiction project in Thailand’, Contemporary Drug Problems 35, 4 (2008): 704 .

43 Thailand continues to enforce strict lèse majesté laws criminalising perceived defamation of the monarchy. Such laws prevent informants from openly discussing or critiquing royally sanctioned projects.

44 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Alternative development: A global thematic evaluation. Final synthesis report (New York: United Nations, 2005); UNODC, ‘Thai alternative development projects showcased at international workshop’, (last accessed 20 Feb. 2016). See also the Highland Research and Development Institute (HRDI) website, (last accessed 20 Feb. 2016).

45 Lintner and Black, Merchants of madness; Chouvy Pierre-Arnaud, Opium: Uncovering the politics of the poppy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

46 Mutebi Alex, ‘Thailand in 2003: Riding high again’, Asian Survey 44, 1(2003): 7886 .

47 Lintner and Black, Merchants of madness, p. 6.

48 Due to space limitations, I am unable to address Thaksin's ‘war on drugs’ in detail in this article. A forthcoming article will investigate the topic in further depth.

49 Platz, ‘Buddhism and Christianity in competition?’, p. 476.

50 Jonsson, Mien relations, p. 109.

51 Ibid., pp. 109–10.

52 Kittiarsa Pattana, ‘Faiths and films: Countering the crisis of Thai Buddhism from below’, Asian Journal of Social Science 34, 2 (2006): 276 .

53 Ibid.: 278.

54 Keyes Charles, ‘Political crisis and militant Buddhism in contemporary Thailand’, in Religion and legitimation of power in Thailand, Laos and Burma, ed. Smith Bardwell (Chambersberg, PA: ANIMA, 1978), pp. 147–64.

55 Sakboon, ‘Controlling bad drugs’. For a comparative perspective from Laos, Paul Cohen argues that within Lao state-promoted processes of ‘Laoisation’ or national integration and assimilation of highland ethnic minorities, opium production and use is negatively depicted as backward, primitive, and antithetical to modernisation and development. These notions were reproduced in official government and international aid agency discourses which claimed that opium cultivation and consumption were the main causes of poverty among ethnic minority communities, arguments which were not supported by Cohen's fieldwork among Akha in northern Laos; Cohen Paul T., ‘Symbolic dimensions of the anti-opium campaign in Laos’, Australian Journal of Anthropology 24, 2 (2013): 177–92.

56 Mills Mary Beth, ‘Thai mobilities and cultural citizenship’, Critical Asian Studies 44, 1 (2012): 85112 .

57 Rosaldo Renato, ‘Cultural citizenship and educational democracy’, Cultural Anthropology 9, 3 (1994): 402–11; Pannadda Boonyasaranai, Prasit Leeprecha, and Mukdawan Sakboon, ‘Bounded nation, mobile people: Lack of citizenship and immobility in northern Thailand’, paper presented at the SEATIDE seminar: Religion, citizenship, tourism and trade in the process of integration, Chiang Mai, Dec. 2014; Mills, ‘Thai mobilities’; Sakboon, ‘Controlling bad drugs’.

58 Jonsson, Mien relations, p. 66.

59 Keane Webb, Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 56 .

60 Platz, ‘Buddhism and Christianity in competition?’. Similar occurrences have been reported in the practice of becoming a spirit medium in Thailand. See: Rhum Michael, The ancestral lords: Gender, descent, and spirits in a northern Thai village (Dekalb: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 1994); Morris Rosalind C., In the place of origins: modernity and its mediums in northern Thailand (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Johnson Andrew, ‘Naming chaos: Accident, precariousness, and the spirits of wildness in urban Thai spirit cults’, American Ethnologist 39, 4 (2012): 766–78.

61 Unfortunately, the centre does not keep records of treatment retention or relapse rates or conduct formal surveys to gather this data. Therefore, it is difficult to accurately estimate the programme's success rate.

62 Dikötter, Laaman and Zhou, Narcotic culture, p. 100.

63 Ibid.

64 Kammerer, ‘Customs and Christian conversion’: 287.

65 Platz, ‘Buddhism and Christianity in competition?’: 487; see also Hayami Yoko, ‘Karen tradition according to Christ or Buddha: The implications of multiple reinterpretations for a minority ethnic group in Thailand’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, 2 (1996): 334–9.

66 Haiying Li, ‘Neo-traditionalist movements and the practice of Aqkaqzanr in a multi-religious community in northern Thailand’ (Master's thesis, Chiang Mai University, 2013).

67 Dïkotter, Laamann and Zhou, Narcotic culture, pp. 93–4.

68 UNODC, Alternative development.

69 Lyttleton, ‘Relative pleasures’: 920.

70 Chouvy, Opium, p. 201.

71 Formoso, ‘Zomian or zombies?’: 316, 332.

I would like to thank my colleagues at MPI and the two anonymous JSEAS referees for their helpful comments, criticisms, and suggestions. Thanks also go to the Max Planck Society for funding this research.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
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