The latest issue of Asia Pacific Viewpoint (49: 1) has two interesting articles on resource conflict in northern Thailand. They are part of a special issue which examines “natural resources and ethnic conflict in the Asia Pacific.” The first article, by Neil Englehart has the provocative title “Resource Conflict and Ethnic Peace in Northern Thailand” [englehart.pdf]. Presenting an argument that runs somewhat contrary to regular accounts of ethnic tension and identity politics in northern Thailand, Englehart argues that there has been “remarkably little violent conflict over either resources or ethnicity.”
In northern Thailand … there has been little collective violence organised along ethnic lines. The relatively high-capacity state has preferred assimilation, and has been able to suppress or mediate incipient conflict. Culturally diverse groups therefore have incentives to participate in a national forum, rather than emphasising their distinctiveness and turning it into a political cleavage. … Popular protest on environmental issues in the north has thus typically employed Thai, monarchist and Buddhist idioms virtually identical to strategies used elsewhere in the kingdom. It is addressed to the central government or its local representatives, invokes Buddhism as a legitimising ideology and pays overt respect to the King and Queen as symbols of the Thai nation. It seeks national media attention to win the interest and sympathy of a national audience. More particularistic strategies are likely to alienate central Thai audiences and lead to failure.
This emphasis on the strategic use of common national symbols is a refreshing alternative to conventional accounts of resource conflict (including some of my own) that are often overly preoccupied with ethnic divisions.
This more conventional approach is nicely reflected in the volume’s second paper on northern Thailand. This paper, by Chiang Mai geographer Chusak Wittayapak, discusses “History and Geography of Identifications Related to Resource Conflicts and Ethnic Violence in Northern Thailand” [chusak.pdf]. The paper opens with a brief description of the infamous destruction of Hmong orchards in Nan province in mid-2000. “The above incident,” Chusak writes
epitomises resource conflict and ethnic violence born out of the specific history and geography of the region. The event is by no means an isolated one, but is indicative of the racial oppression that stretches between the lowlands and highlands of mainland Southeast Asia, where valley-based states have regularly attempted to repress hill-dwelling ethnic minorities.
In his account of these resource conflicts he takes a rather different route to Englehart, arguing that different ethnic groups have drawn on cultural traditions to contest the resource enclosure of the state:
In the highlands of Northern Thailand, despite continuous encroachment and resource exploitation in pursuit of national economic growth, many ethnic communities have been able to sustain traditional, dynamic and adaptive resource management regimes, and agricultural systems appropriate to the highlands. Highlanders such as Karen have been living in harmony with the conservation of forest in the mountainous North. …
The community forest movement is often associated with the ethnic Karen identity in terms of forest stewardship. The community forest movement has constituted a space for indigenous knowledge and a repertoire of protest of powerless ethnic minorities. It is endowed with and enriched by various forms of symbolic resistance and cultural meaning.
Of course these are powerful arguments and they are backed by a rich body of scholarship on resource politics by both Thai and foreign scholars. But I do wonder why Chusak seems reluctant to engage with the arguments (put, among others, by myself and implied in the paper by Englehart) that political appeals to ethnicity (especially those based on images of ecological guardianship) are not necessarily empowering at all. Of course it is an unfortunate academic indulgence to be disappointed about not being cited but I would have been genuinely delighted if Chusak had critically engaged with the arguments I have presented (including at several conferences in Chiang Mai itself) about the pitfalls of both ethnic stereotyping in accounts of uplanders in Thailand and the lack of attention to livelihood in the campaign for community forestry. There is a legitimate debate to be had about political strategy and the livelihood outcomes of political campaigns. I hope that, at some stage, it can take place. Otherwise we will continue to see scholars writing in parallel as is nicely illustrated by this special issue of Asia Pacific Viewpoint.