Bowie, Katherine Ann
1997 Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand. New York: Columbia University Press.
Notes: xx, 393 p.: ill., maps; 24 cm.
Reviewed 18 Jun 1999 by:
Kathleen A. Gillogly <firstname.lastname@example.org>
University of Michigan
Medium: Written Literature Subject
Communism - Thailand
Insurgency - Thailand
Thailand - Politics and government
ABSTRACT: The Village Scout movement of Thailand was a phenomenon of the 1970s. It was developed to mobilize Thai citizens against the threat of communist insurgency and was used to intimidate critics of the Thai Government. Yet it was not always used as originally intended and eventually subsided when certain elements of the government could not manipulate it as they wished and villagers did not gain the benefits they hoped to achieve from it.
This book is a fascinating and richly detailed ethnography of the rise and decline of the Village Scout movement in the context of both villagers? needs and perceptions and the vicissitudes of Thai political factions. Bowie first situates the rise of the Scout movement in national and international politics of the time and then details the ritual and role of the movement in a village in northern Thailand. In this, Bowie has succeeded in bridging the macro and micro levels of analysis. It is an unusual and remarkable feat. Furthermore, this work opens the door to theorizing the uses of state or political ritual in the context of class interests and conflicts.
Part One focuses on the macro-level, national politics. This discussion is informative and fills a gap in the English literature on the history of this turbulent time in Thailand. The 1970s were marked by the brutal and violent repression of the student-led democracy movement in October 1976, changes in the role of the monarchy, and insecurities raised by the Indochinese War.
The impetus for the founding of the Village Scout Movement was the emotional response of a high-ranking officer in the Border Patrol Police (BPP) to the deaths of his soldiers in battle with communists. Yet once initiated, the movement was embedded within broader social forces. To explain the movement?s trajectory, Bowie considers the development of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and the role of the BPP within the ?spectrum of government agencies charged with fighting the growth of communism? (p. 11). An important point she makes is the role of the founder, a widely-traveled officer from the lower-middle classes, a self-made man, who was more familiar with the everyday problems facing villagers than were the government elite. Furthermore, the dislocations and pressures of social forces at the time encouraged and allowed innovation at a greater degree than had been usual.
Bowie then goes on to examine the political and economic forces behind the rapid growth of the scout movement. Much of this is based on an analysis of the changing interaction of the monarchy and middle classes. For one who has only worked in Thailand recently, this is extraordinarily enlightening. Study of history shows that the institution of the monarchy is not inherently powerful; it was in effect re-created by the present king and certain class fractions post-WWII. In the 1970s, the monarchy served simultaneously as a symbol of progressive reform to the poor and of conservative reaction to the elite, which multivocality lent it considerable staying power. Royal patronage of the scout movement gave it cachet among the ambitious and helped to fund it. The movement became more urban and middle class and the character of the movement acquired an undertone of fascism. It was in this variant that Village Scouts became a force in right-wing political activity, most prominently in the scouts? role in the brutalization of university students on October 6, 1976.
Finally, Bowie describes ?five major fissures among the ruling elite? (p. 12) with meticulous detail. Following the coup of October 6, 1976, the government temporarily contained the movement. When it arose again, it was as a more rural-based movement in response to the strengthened position and increasing boldness of the CPT. It is this latter period that Bowie examines in her village-based ethnography in Part II.
Much of the interest of this section lies in Bowie?s discussion of the role of inter-agency politics and shifting factions among the conservative upper-classes in the formation and transformation of the Village Scout movement. Too frequently, class-based social analysis sees broad classes, without consideration of the localized interests of members of a class or considering the role of agency in the state.
Part One will be very useful to those seeking to understand this significant period in modern Thai history. This history has too often been suppressed or heavily politicized. Bowie provides an excellent summary of the history of the period that will be useful to those seeking to deepen their understanding of class and social divisions in Thailand that still have ramifications today.
This section is particularly significant to the study of the rise of nationalism in Thailand. Teachings on devotion to the king, the nation, and Buddhism, developed in this context of anti-communist hysteria, are still used today in the more isolated villages in Thailand with which I am familiar. Bowie?s discussion historically situates these.
Part Two focuses on peasant reactions to the scout movement. It is based on Bowie?s field research in a northern Thai village. As such, she is able to present richly detailed information on local discussions of the scout movement. The heart of this section is in her detailed account of a Village Scout initiation. She then analyzes the immediate effects of the initiation and how the responses of villagers varied with their class position in the village. Again, this is a significant contribution to village ethnography in Thailand, where until recently scholars focused on the lack of division and sub-groups. Bowie?s account should put to rest any idea that rural Thai society is a homogeneous, cooperative unit.
Bowie undertakes little symbolic analysis of the Village Scout initiation ritual. She writes of it: ? The Village Scout initiation rite had virtually no direct connection with any significant preexisting Thai rituals. It cobbled together sleep deprivation from psychological warfare theories with skits, songs, and knot tying ... The Village Scout movement appears to have been a quixotic bricolage of political desperation ...? (p. 52). Some have seen this as a weakness in the book. Yet it was not Bowie?s intent to develop a full-fledged symbolic analysis of the ritual in isolation. Furthermore, she has provided more than enough rich ethnographic detail to allow others to build on her work and make their own arguments. This is rare in anthropology publications today, and bespeaks the strength of her research and data (kudos to the Columbia University Press for printing it!).
Bowie?s account also addresses the concept of ?false consciousness? and effectiveness. The Village Scout movement, like many other right-wing movements around the world, worked through appeal to emotion. ?Right-wing movements use symbols to blur and mask the conflicting interests inherent in a cross-class alliance? (p. 14). Those who sought to manipulate the movement in support of the right-wing government of Thailand in the1970s did this through arousing passionate devotion to the monarchy and thus the nation. In this, the initiation appears to have been effective. Bowie writes of the hysterical response generated by the end of initiation: initiates sobbed uncontrollably, passed out, and expressed extreme emotion in a way that was atypical of ordinary social behavior. Bowie writes of one person?s overwhelming euphoria: ?One Village Scout recounted years later, ?I had always loved the King, but never as intensely as I did that moment. That moment I felt it through the core of my being ...? (p. 226). Initiation into the movement cross-cut village ties, and initiates acquired a new identity as Village Scouts. ?The symbols of the Nation, Religion, and King had become quite intimate and immediate to each scout ... The initiates, for whom family bonds were already of profound importance, now had a sense that they had joined the larger family of the Village Scouts and the Thai nation? (p. 229). Clearly, the emotive rhetoric had been immediately effective.
In Chapters 7 and 8, however, Bowie documents how the scout movement ?reflected [the villagers?] contradictory class perspectives. For the elite the imagery reinforced hierarchy and an authoritarian vision of the ideal society; for the hopeful [poorer] villager the imagery appealed to the ideal love of parents for their children. ... this symbolic strategy created expectations of benevolence that the national urban elite never meant to satisfy and the local village elite could not? (p. 235). In time, village elite found that they could not maintain the level of contribution expected of them by the movement and fellow members; the middle-level villagers did not gain the benefits and sen (ties, connections, networks) they had hoped for from membership; and the poorest, landless villagers could not even afford the precious days and pennies required to participate in initiation. Ultimately, the class contradictions of village life could not be subsumed under ?Nation, Religion, King,? and participation in the movement fell into abeyance.
Furthermore, the national stage changed. The CPT was torn by division; because it did not continue to provide a meaningful challenge to the government, the national Thai elite was less motivated to pour money into the scout movement. Dwindling support at the national level also followed on the establishment of a new government. The new prime minister represented a new coalition of state factions; facing internal problems of stability, he sought to bring the scout movement under tighter administrative control. It had already shown itself to be a potentially powerful force; it was too dangerous a force to permit members of other factions to manipulate. As Bowie states in the conclusion: ?...the creation of a populist conservative movement carries significant risks. Because such a movement involves popular participation, it poses the constant threat that it may develop beyond the state?s control? (p. 286). She concludes that right-wing governments are most likely to support such organizations only ?when the existing institutions for the establishment and maintenance of state hegemony are weak ...? (p. 286).
This is a significant conclusion regarding class/state power and ritual; I hope that others follow Bowie?s lead in studying this. The focus and strength of the book may be the history and ethnography, but by even joining together analyses of class and of ritual, Bowie has made a unique contribution to theory. In this, she pays attention to what she considers the key aspects of state ritual: agency and state hegemony; efficacy and ?false consciousness;? the need to include class analysis in consideration of the inherent ambiguity of symbolic multivocality; and dynamism in the historical trajectory of rituals. If this section is somewhat less satisfying than the history/ethnography, it is because it is so intriguing. She then carries out a too-brief consideration of state ritual in its historical context. She writes: ?As political rituals rise and fall, they become part of a longer historical trajectory of the use of ritual by states. A broader historical perspective illuminates the negotiation between the classes, the overture by the state, and the response by the people? (p. 47). Her discussion clearly points to the need for a full comparative history of Thai political rituals, and some paths to take in pursuing that study. Rituals of National Loyalty is an important step in that direction.
1. The BPP was Thailand?s premier counterinsurgency agency, in part funded and trained by American agencies.