Spirited Politics: Spirit Discourses and National Trauma in Thailand
Time & LocationSession 9
Fri 09:00–10:30 Room 1.403
- Megan Sinnott Georgia State University
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- An Ambivalent Mode of Believing: “Cheua” in Thai Spirit Beliefs Kanya Wattanagun Chulalongkorn University
The Anglo-American term “believe” inadequately denotes the way in which spirit beliefs are held and practiced in present-day Thailand. Used in the context of Judeo-Christian monotheism, “believe” connotes a commitment to a certain faith. Later on under the influence of scientific rationalism, the term implies an acceptance of a truth claim that has not been verified. “Believe” in the western context consistently denotes a strong conviction that something is true, which further implies the rejection of the truth claims that contradict the held belief. Given these underlying meanings, I argue that the term “believe” cannot do justice to an ambivalent way in which numerous Thai people hold and practice spirit beliefs in present-day Thailand. I contend that “cheua”, in several cases, conveys speaker’s acceptance that a proposition is plausible and worth considering rather than his or her complete certainty in the veracity of the held belief. Therefore, “cheua” in these cases does not entail a rejection of other possibilities. I delineate this argument by looking into the phii pop tradition among the northeastern Thai folk and the cave rescue in Chiang Rai in 2018.
- Ghost Aesthetics: Child-Spirit Imagery and Materialization in Thailand Megan Sinnott Georgia State University
The rise in the popularity of both formal rituals to appease fetal spirits and the growing commercialization of child spirit “dolls” raises questions about the emergence of new spirit beliefs and practices, and their significance within current socio-economic contexts in Thailand. The growth and innovation of widespread and diverse practices associated with propitiation and “adoption” of child spirits in Thailand has been significant within roughly the past two decades. These innovative practices synthesize Thai traditional beliefs of “kumanthong,’ (fetal/child spirit amulets) with both regional spiritual trends, such as formal fetal propitiation and adoption rites at Buddhist temples, and commodification and marketing of material spiritual objects. Belief in “kumanthong,” or fetal spirits is possibly centuries old, but recent developments in the promotion of Buddhist temple propitiation rituals and the widespread popularity of “adopting” child spirits by middle class and young Thais introduces new dynamics to these practices. This paper traces the movement of the materialization or representation of these child spirits, from amulets made from human flesh, to formalized figurines endowed with spiritual essence, to commercially produced “luk-thep” dolls. These aesthetic and material shifts in representation, materialized through the human production of sacred objects, trace a movement to increasingly commodified and “respectable” relationships to the sacred.
- Sovereigns of Care: Spirits as a Geopolitical Apparatus of Health Bo Kyeong Seo Yonsei University
Drawing on spirit mediums’ and their devotees’ ritual practices centered on care and protection in northern Thailand, this paper explores the uncharted interfaces between biopolitical governing and the realm of potency. The analytic possibility that biopower offers to anthropology is not just that it confirms the menace of sovereign power that can produce a sort of people who are deemed killable, but it allows us to reconsider localized forms of sovereignty in which power over life and death is operational. In this paper, I map Shan migrants’ experiences of violence and affliction in the borderlands between Burma and Thailand and show how spirits operate as a deified sovereignty. Human life is under the influence of these malleable and ambivalent forces, and both sovereign states and sacred forces can exercise the double movement of power over life. By focusing on improvised ritual repertories and everyday forms of devotion that aim to secure a flow of life-giving welfare, I discuss how the potency of spirits produces different possibilities of care for the self and others. Within this potency-centered view, power relations are reconfigured by the desire to care which is based on mutuality, responsiveness, and shared incompetence rather than dominance.
Ghosts and spirits are ever-present in the Thai landscape, evident in the ubiquitous spirit shrines and offerings that dot the countryside and cities. Spirits are part of everyday life; they are propitiated, worshipped, loved, feared, and dreaded. Spirits are so central to the everyday experiences of many people that any account of religion and culture in Thailand is not complete without an accounting of how the spirit world informs both personal experience and ideological structures. This panel explores multiple ways in which spirit beliefs and practices in Thailand evolve and transform in response to changing social contexts. Spirits are evoked by the state to bolster hegemony, such the practice of state actors sponsoring particular shrines (to royal historical figures, mythical figures, Indic deities, and local spirits). Spirits are also evoked by the general public in response to social crises, regional identities, and traumatic events. This panel will explore a range of spirit beliefs in Thailand and examine their connections to local social and political events and discourses. Topics will include the state’s efforts to monopolize local spirit festivals and rituals, the Thai public’s reliance on spirit discourses to address national traumas and crises, and the production of new practices and beliefs in response to changing social conditions.