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Will and Awe: Illustrations of Thai Villager Dependency Upon Officials*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2011


THE superior in Thailand has been described as unquestioned and domineering. Inferiors stand in awe of (fy-eng) the superior. Yet, the superior is expected to act to his inferiors in a concerned and benevolent fashion. He should aid his inferiors yet not dominate them to such an extent as to destroy their sense of autonomy. In this paper I shall extend previous discussions of Thai superior-inferior behavior by showing the compatibility of the Thai concepts of benevolence and awe. This sense of awe felt towards a superior permits him to undertake actions considered benevolent by his inferiors. To illustrate this situation I shall describe certain types of contact that occurred between rural Thai officials, as superiors, and villagers as their inferiors.

Copyright © Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 1973

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1 The observations of villager-official interaction were undertaken in two moderately isolated districts in Northern Thailand. Both districts were primarily agricultural, both suffered from water shortages and both lacked a developed economic infrastructure. One district was confronted with problems from criminal gangs, the other had problems caused by local insurgents. Though the central government provided extra resources to the district with the insurgency, neither district had sufficient resources to develop the needed infrastructure.

The officials studied are members of the national bureaucracy centered in Bangkok. Administratively, Thailand is divided into provinces (cangwat), districts (amphur), communes (tambol) and villages (muban). Though teachers sometimes live in villages and health workers and community development workers have tambol level assignments, the lowest level of effective, authoritative government occurs at the district. The district is headed by the district officer—the Nai Amphur—assisted by palads (assistant district officers). The Nai Amphur as representative of the Ministry of the Interior is formally in charge of all officials within the amphur. Within the district there are officials responsible for defense, development, community development, cooperatives, agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, excise taxes, taxes, education, malaria, post office and police.

For a general discussion of the Thai bureaucracy Siffin, cf. William, The Thai Bureaucracy: Institutional Change and Development (Honolulu: The East-West Center Press, 1966).Google ScholarFor a discussion of problems of the local bureaucracy Mehden, cf. Fred von der and Wilson, David eds., Local Authority and Administration in Thailand (Academic Advisory Council for Thailand, Report No. 1, Los Angeles: University of California, 1970). The most detailed discussions of the local bureaucracy can be found in Rubin (1972),Google ScholarNeher, Clark, District Level Politics in Northern Thailand, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (University of California, 1969)Google Scholar or Horrigan, Frederick, Local Government and Administration in Thailand: A Study of Institutions and Their Cultural Setting, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Indiana University, 1959).Google Scholar

2Phillips, Herbert, Thai Peasant Personality: The Patterning of Interpersonal Behavior in the Village of Bang Chan (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1965);Google ScholarMoerman, M., “Western Culture and the Thai Way of Life” in Man, State and Society in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Tilman, Robert (ed.), (New York: Praeger, 1969); Piker(1968a; 1968b); Siffin (1966);Google ScholarMosel, J., “Thai Administrative Behavior” in Toward the Comparalive Study of Public Administration, Siffin, William (ed.), (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957);Google ScholarRiggs, Fred, Thailand: The Modernization of a Bureaucratic Policy (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1966);Google ScholarHanks, L., “Merit and Power inthe Thai Social OrderAmerican Anthropologist 64; 6 (December, 1962), 1242–61.Google Scholar

3 My thinking on this subject reflects the ideas presented by Piker, Piker, cf. S., “Sources of Stability and Instability in Rural Thailand Society,” Journal of Asian Studies 27, No. 4, (August, 1968), 777790,CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Piker, S., “The Relationship of Belief Systems to Behavior in Rural Thai Society,” Asian Survey Vol. 8, No. 5, (May, 1968), 384400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Hanks (1962, p. 1247).

5 Hanks then discusses the relationship of patronclient dyads to the Buddhist concepts of merit and power. In particular he emphasizes the methods by which patron-client dyads are established, the impermanence of such dyads and the relationship of this impermanence to the cosmological justification for the superior's power. Hanks (1962).

6The clearest statement of this situation is given by Wilson, David, Politics in Thailand (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962) p.Google Scholar 74, in which he describes the “necessary and just unity of virtue and power” in Thai culture.

Mosel quoted in Riggs (1966, p. 363) makes an identical point while describing the bureaucracy.

7 Siffin (1966, pp. 220–2) emphasizes this point:“Overt expressions of disrespect toward a superior as a person are flagrantly improper. Even an in competent superior cannot be attacked openly. The full force of superior hierarchical status supports his position. It is backed by the availability of sanction as well as by its inherent legitimacy.‘Walk behind the supervisor and the dog will not bite you’ and ‘don't spit upwards’ are two administrative proverbs known to all Thai bureaucrats.”

8 This is described by Phillips (1965, p. 149) as follows: (as a superior a person) “ought to be sympathetic towards his neighbors; must be just; must not be biased; must reprimand those who do wrong and praise those who do good; give money to the poor, behave well and tell subordinates to behave well too.”;

9 Phillips and Wilson quoted in Riggs (1966, p. 324).

10A very similar pattern is noted by Lucian Pye, Politics, Personality and Nation-Building (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 156, when describing the Burmans' attitude towards authority. In both cases a Buddhist interpretation of the role of the authority figure seems appropriate.Google Scholar

11 Piker (1968a, 777).

12 The statements above are deduced from Rubin (1972), Riggs (1966) discussion of patron-client and factional relations at elite levels and the different forms of villager patron-client relationships described in the anthropological literature. For example seeMoerman, Michae, Agriculture Change and Peasant Choice in a Thai Village (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1968) or Howard Kaufman, Bangkhtuad: A Community Study of Thailand (Monograph No. 10 of the Association for Asian Studies, Locust Valley, N. Y.: J. J. Augustin, Inc., 1960) or Phillips (1965)Google Scholar for differing descriptions of village level patron-client relationships.Roy, Edward van, Economic System of Northern Thailand: Structure and Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971) describes upland Thailand patron-client linkages.Google Scholar

For some striking differences in the nature of patron-client relations, which I shall discuss below, in Fagg, Java see. D., Authority and Social Stratification: A Study in Javanese Bureaucracy, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Cambridge: Harvard, 1958).Google Scholar

13 Moerman (1968), Kaufman (1965) show the low intensity of the linkage between villager and official. A good discussion of the distortions in information flow caused by the low intensity of villager-official interaction is Moerman's, M “A Minority and Its Government: The Thai Lue of Northern Thailand” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities and Nations, Kunstadter, Peter (ed.) (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967).Google Scholar

14 Many of the studies done on villager-official interaction in the Northeast show mutual antipathy or hostility, Young, cf. Stephen, “The Northeastern Thai Village: A Non-Participatory Democracy,” Asian Survey VIII: 11 (November, 1968) 873886;CrossRefGoogle Scholar or Keyes, Charles, Peasant and Nation: Thai Lao Village in a Thai State, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1966).Google ScholarMorell's, D. recent article “Legislative Intervention in Thailand's Development Process: A Case Study.” Asian Survey 12:8 (August, 1972) p. 627646 demonstrates the frustrations that can be involved for both villager and official in development activities.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 In the areas included in this study material resources were lacking. The community development budgets were of the order of 5^/person/year; the land tax budgets averaged slightly less. Villagers seemed to be somewhat aware of the budget constraints faced by the officials. In a survey done by the author they were asked “Do you think that the amphur has sufficient money for developing the village or not?” they replied as follows: (‘Elites’ indicates various villagers on officially appointed villager level committees. ‘Regular villagers’ refers to all other adult male villagers living in their own home.)

For a detailed study of the ‘politics’ necessitated by the resource limitations in rural Thailand, Neher, cf. Clark, Rural Thai Government: The Politics of the Budgetary Process (Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Special Report Series, No. 4; DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University, 1970).Google Scholar Neher focuses upon the ‘monetary’ and ‘political’ transactions between official and villagers; I shall be focusing upon the symbolic and cultural. As my later argument will show the symbolic and monetary sides of the interaction are not necessarily unrelated. Through motivating villagers to contribute time and labor to development activities the official is minimizing the effects of monetary resource limitations.

16 Similar problems have been discussed in each of the various Southeast Asian nations. For specific references see below where explicit comparisons are made between Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations. Scott, James, in “Patron-Client Political Change in Southeast Asia,” American Political Science Review, LXVI, No. 1. (March 1972), 91114 discusses in general many of these problems.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

The reader should note that many of the patterns that I shall describe for Thailand seem similar to those found in other Southeast Asian countries. As I shall show, at times, this is true. Yet, on closer examination the patterns differ on many crucial dimensions. For example, superior-inferior relationships differ in at least three important ways. First, the concept of the nature of the superior's power differs between the various societies. Secondly, the amount of psychological dependency felt by the inferior differs. Thirdly, the permanence of the relationship differs from society to society. Some examples of these points are given below. For further discussion seeRubin, H., “Freedom and Dependence in a Bureaucratic Organization: Illustrations and Contrasts from the Thai Bureaucracy” (Unpublished manuscript, De Kalb, Northern Illinois University, 1972b).Google Scholar The differences should not suggest that a search for Southeast Asian patterns should be abandoned. Rather, they suggest that this search should be carried out with more consideration to psychological processes and less to formalistic structural considerations.

17 The examples and descriptions are based upon data collected in only one area of northern Thailand. However, the similarities that I shall show to Phillips' (1965) data collected in the central region and the consistency with the other sources mentioned indicates that the patterns observed probably are ‘Thai’ and not simply ‘northern Thai.’

18 Metta, karuna etc. are essentially Buddhist religious concepts. Wilson (1962, p. 77) discusses them: the ideal analysis distinguishes four types of ethically good behavior which bring merit to a person and improve his status in the world.These are benevolence (metta), sympathy (karuna),freedom from envy (multhita) and non-involvement (ubekkha).

For further discussion of such concepts see books on Buddhist ethics, for example Saddhatissa, H., Buddhist Ethics, Essence oj Buddhism (New York:George Braziller, 1970).Google Scholar

These concepts were mentioned in open-ended discussions with villagers and officials concerning the proper behavior of a good superior. The responses from the villagers reported below in which they describe a desire for generalized benevolence from officials are quite consistent with the above concepts. The results also agree with Phillips (1965,p. 146 ff).

19 The respondents described kreng in these terms. Unfortunately, I did not investigate why the Thai would feel uncomfortable in situations in which he could not reciprocate. Perhaps, what is feared is an open-ended obligation to reciprocate which would necessitate a long term dependence upon another. This situation would seriously infringe upon the individual's sense of autonomy, cf. Phillips (1965) or Evers, H. D. (ed.), Loosely Structured Social Systems: Thailand in Comparative Perspective (Southeast Asia Studies, Cultural Report Series, No. 17; New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1967).Google Scholar This speculation is consistent with the discussions of reciprocity in the anthropological literature. Moerman's (1968) or Kaufman's (1960) discussion of khooraeng, awraeng, term, lo, awhaeng, coj involve fairly explicit commitments between superior and inferior of almost a ‘tit for tat’ nature. This limited sense of reciprocity differs from that described for other Southeast Asian nations. It involves far less psychological commitment than is implicit within the Filipino concepts of utnang na loob (debt of gratitude) with the accompanying sense of hiya (shame) for failure to reciprocate. Lynch, Cf. Frank, Four Readings on Philippine Values (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1964).Google Scholar On the other hand, the Thai concept of reciprocity does not seem to have within it the same ‘leveling’ or ‘equalizing’ tendency that Jay, Robert, Javanese Villagers (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1969) describes for the Javanese.Google Scholar

20 Kaufman (1960, p. 53).

21 Kreng is a word appropriate to a shame culture. It differs from other concepts of shame in Southeast Asian cultures. For example the Filipino sense of hiya in Lynch (1964, p. 129): hiya is the universal social sanction that regulates the give and take of reciprocity and in general all social behavior.

In the Philippine case shame is caused by overt actions. A person is publically called down or told directly he is acting shamefully. Kreng, in contrast, seems more internalized.

Krengcaj is similar to the Burmese concept of anade. Anade, too, is evoked by the mere presence of superiors. An Nash, M., The Golden Road to Modernity (New York: John Wiley, 1965), p.Google Scholar 268 describes it: a superior and more powerful person can usually stir up anade in an inferior and in less powerful persons; the constraints of anade arc often inoperative between intimates, among equals.

Anade like krengcaj prevents the inferior from infringing upon the superior's autonomy. It is a mechanism that permits the superior to control the inferior without the use of coercion. L. Pye, (1962, p. 149) describes: the feeling of ahnahde…is an emotion that wells up inside a Burmese paralyzing his will, in particular preventing him from pushing his own self-interest and compelling him to hold back and accede to the demands of others.

22 An overview of Javanese superior-inferior relations would show great similarity to the Thai case. As Fagg (1958) or Jay (1969) describe, Javanese superior-inferior relations are paternalistic. Fagg (pp. 233–4) describes the ‘father-son’–bapak-anak anak relation previously existing between the wedono (the district officer) and the villager.

Yet, a closer examination of the literature illustrates that the Thai and Javanese have different concepts about the permanence and legitimation of a superior's power. In Rubin (1972b) I argue that in the Thai case the superior is not afraid to display his power; in fact, to justify having power, he must display it. In Anderson, , “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture” in Holt, C. ed. Culture and Politics in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), Fagg (1958) and Jay (1969) describe that power, in the Javanese sense, must not be displayed. It should be husbanded and only shown through personal smoothness (Anderson, 1972, p.13). And, the possessor of power, unlike the Thai case, does not have a normative obligation to those who lack power (Anderson, 1972, 47). To Fagg, (1958, p. 309) this inability to display power represents the fundamental dilemma faced by the local Javanese official. Curtailment and control of power require soft, calm indirect interaction and an overly formalized sense of etiquette.Google Scholar

23 These questions were part of a larger survey of three villages reported in Rubin (1972). The villages were chosen to represent differing degrees of official interest and contact. One was located within a ‘model’ development area; the second more isolated village at least nominally was part of the community development area. The third was part of the more ‘urbanized’ sanitary district which did not have a community development program. (Inactuality the sanitary district was simply a more dense cluster of peasant housing with some stores.)Questionnaires were administered to a sample of village elites who had formal positions that frequently interacted with officials and to a sample of adult village males. Because of the length of the complete instrument three partial forms were used, Not all questions were used on all forms hence the ‘N’ on the tables differs.

24 Phillips' (1965) discussion of Thai peasant personality is quite consistent with the above results.He describes (p. 155) that “although most villagers know how to acquit themselves well in the authority role, they would not like to become authority figures themselves.” Throughout his book there are illustrations of the peasant's willingness to comply with authority figures (for example p. 144) and their hope or feeling that “despite the lack ofexplicit personal investment or identification with the power role, the majority of informants are concerned with acquitting themselves well (when they have power)” p. 147.

25 Eg. he was not acting benevolently.

26 In H. Rubin, “A Framework for the Analysis of Villager-Official Contact in Rural Thailand” forthcoming, a start is made in incorporating more variables and discussing more complicated interactions.

27 To some extent the very interesting and informative studies by Jacobs, Norman, Modernization Without Development: Thailand as an Asia Case Study (New York: Praeger, 1971) and Scott (1972) are faced with this difficulty.Google Scholar

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