One of the things that struck me at the Critical Transitions in the Mekong Conference is the ongoing researcher interest, especially among MA and PhD students, in the Shan (or tai yaay). This research interest is to be applauded. Travelling around northern Thailand it is hard not to be struck by the enormous contribution of migrant Shan workers to the service sector, construction projects and agricultural enterprise. Relatively cheap Shan labour seems to be playing an increasingly important role in Thailand’s labour in-sufficient economy. Research that casts light on this fundamentally important economic, demographic and cultural shift is very welcome indeed.
But research interest in the Shan is not always so pragmatic. For some Thai scholars the Shan represent a desirable ideal of lost Thai/Tai community. The nostalgia for Shan community is expressed in two ways. First, the Shan “village community” is often portrayed as the “authentic” Thai community, featuring forms of communal solidarity long-lost in the rapidly modernising Thai heartland. And, for some, the “trans-border Shan community” (community writ large) recalls the pre-modern and pre-nation-state linkages between the various Tai peoples. This recent culturalist echo of earlier pan-Thai sentiments delights in the linguistic and cultural similarities between the Thai and the Shan.
These are some of the issues that are addressed in an important thesis written by my co-blogger, Nich Farrelly. Nich submitted this thesis at the ANU in 2003 and I think it is time that it got some wider coverage (he is much too modest to post it himself!). Here it is:
The current crop of researchers working on the Shan may be provoked and stimulated by Nich’s critical reflections.