Peerasak Chaidaisuk, Chat sua wai lai [A Tiger Doesn’t Change Its Stripes]. Bangkok, Matichon, 2008. pp. xiii + 239. In Thai.

This is the Year of the Tiger, but the tiger in the title of this book refers to bandits, robbers, cattle rustlers and ne’er-do-wells who plied their trades outside the law or just this side of it. Tiger, the Thai honorific for celebrated armed robbers (jon) or bandits (phu rai), was a term worn as a badge of honour. Peerasak begins with a sharp distinction between jon and phu rai on the basis of the legal code, saying that jon committed theft only, whereas phu rai were capable of all kinds of crime including murder. Archival materials and oral accounts are less fussy about the distinction. The two terms often appear together as jon phu rai who sometimes operated in raiding gangs, and Peerasak acknowledges the overlap in meaning later in the book. The pro-British Bangkok Times campaigned relentlessly against dacoits, an Anglicised version of the Hindi or Urdu word for armed robber. Dacoit carries a hint of the social bandit made famous by Eric Hobsbawm’s books.

The context of the book, based on Peerasak’s MA history thesis (2002) in Thai at Chulalongkorn University, is the late nineteenth century when the central government endeavoured to extend its writ outward into the provinces and downward into the villages through the reform edict of 1892 and the introduction of a centrally-appointed provincial administration. Peerasak confines his study to the central floodplain and the provinces near Bangkok. He is particularly interested in the social world of the bandits and their interaction with local authorities such as headmen and circle headmen. Crime, social banditry and policing in Thailand have not been hugely popular topics with historians, although Thai historians have made progress in this field with the continuing activity in local history since the 1980s, and several farang projects on the police are presently underway.

In the capital the police force had a distinctly colonial feel to it. To counter French criticism that Siam was unable to maintain law and order, the government employed British officers from the colonial Indian and Burma police forces. As was the case in Hong Kong, Burma, and the Straits Settlements, many constables and night watchmen were Sikhs, particularly in the foreign quarters. In the countryside policing was more haphazard, and in the expanding frontier where land was quickly cleared and planted with rice for the international market, law enforcement was weak as in frontiers everywhere.

The national police force was still in the making and understaffed; on occasion army units had to be dispatched to deal with bandit gangs. The shortage of qualified personnel for the new administration meant that some headmen and circle headmen were drawn from the ranks of the lawless who dispensed a rough justice at best. Another problem was that officials loyal to the central government sometimes had to compromise with local conditions for pragmatic reasons. West of Bangkok in Nakhon Pathom, government officials turned a blind eye to cattle theft, because the cane-crushing mills were driven by cattle power, and cattle were being stolen to supply the mills. Putting a stop to the illegal trade would have meant closure of the crushing mills and financial ruin for their owners, so officials turned a blind eye to cattle rustling.

In the late nineteenth century cattle and buffalo rustling were rife in the central plains. Peerasak gives statistics for a district in Ayudhya which lost 500-600 water buffalo per annum in the mid-1890s; many of these animals were taken to other parts of the country to escape detection. Expansion of rice land increased the demand for water buffalo used for ploughing and harrowing, and some buffalo ended up in Burma where the rice boom there had also created demand. The Siamese government moved to interdict illegal livestock movements by requiring licenses for export and certificates of ownership and transport. These measures had little effect on cattle rustling. The costs of all beasts of burden – elephants, horses, water buffalo, and cattle – continued to rise through the early twentieth century. While many commodities became scarce during the boom, increasing prosperity and monetisation of the economy made small holders attractive targets for thieves.

Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger draws on David Johnston’s Yale University PhD thesis (1975), an accessible, elegant study of rural society and the rice economy from 1880-1930. Johnston’s thesis has been very influential on several generations of Thai social and economic historians and was translated into Thai in 1987 but never fully published in English. Johnston’s chapter on rural crime and banditry, based on archival documents and numerous reports on dacoity in the Bangkok Times and published in a much-cited article in 1980, has been a model for Peerasak. Both Johnston and Peerasak exploit similar source material, for example, Prince Damrong’s ‘Conversations with a Bandit’ and Phya Anuman Rajadhon’s 1972 study of rural society and traditions in premodern times. Johnston focused on the Rangsit Canal development north of the capital, and Peerasak has extended his survey to include Nakhorn Pathom, Thanyaburi, Samut Songkhram and Minburi, the provinces closest to Bangkok. Source materials that will yield new data and insights for this topic appear to have been exhausted.

Peerasak stays well within Johnston’s framework and finds more examples of compromise and collusion between government officials and the social world of bandit gangs and thieves. A distinctive contribution of Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger is to elucidate the role of the nak leng, a term for local strong men who solved disputes sometimes by negotiation, and sometimes by force. Nak leng carried themselves with dignity (saksi). They were true to their word, repaid kindnesses, and did not harm women or children. In this respect, they possessed the same attributes as the celebrated ‘tiger’ bandits.

Indeed, nak leng and sua could be one and the same person, depending on the circumstances. Rural cultivators liked to have nak leng resident in their village for protection; if the nak leng ventured into another village to avenge a wrongdoing and broke the law, he was a jon phu rai in the eyes of the neighbouring villagers. Nineteenth-century dictionaries defined nak leng as ‘professional gambler’ who wagered on cock fights and hung around the gambling halls. Nak leng had a reputation for hedonism, and much enjoyed women, liquor, horse racing, and cards – sura nari phachi kilabat, as the saying goes, the vices a good Buddhist should guard against. Nowadays nak leng can refer to a man who is particularly good at something. I’ve seen no evidence that the term applied to women.

Nak leng rewarded the loyalty of their supporters and demonstrated a capacity for building alliances that made them natural leaders as village and circle headmen. Peerasak shows how the central government had to yield authority to ‘big’ nak leng in the early years of the new provincial administration. Political scientists have created a lineage from nak leng to local bosses or godfathers (jao phor) who could deliver votes in elections and aspire to national office. The nak leng described in Peerasak’s book, however, come from a different historical period. Sporting tattoos and fond of the magic arts (saiyasat) to protect themselves against blades and bullets, nak leng represent a rural masculine social type that is fast disappearing from the Thai countryside.

In the end, Peerasak’s book is as much about the dynamics of local politics and the problems the central government faced in fashioning a national administration as it is about bandits and nak leng. It was said that a district officer or a governor who had never let a bandit go free, or a crime go unpunished, was an official who had never really had to deal with bandits whose powers rivalled those of the government. In effect, political realities in 1900 forced the central government to out-source government to local leaders of all stripes. Siam at that time was lightly governed, which raises the question of at what point, and to what degree, government became oppressive at the local level.

Foreign scholars and PhD students who know Thai language have come to respect the rich store of research in MA theses completed at Thailand’s universities. Not all of these find their way into print, so the practice of Matichon Publishing of selecting MA theses and making them available through its Art & Culture imprint is to be applauded.

Reviewed by Craig J. Reynolds

Published originally on New Mandala, 12 March 2010. English translation of the title revised on 2 May 2011.