Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok

Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok

by Michael Herzfeld

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226331614
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/07/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael Herzfeld is the Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and has taught at several other universities worldwide. He is the author of many books, most recently The Body Impolitic and Evicted from Eternity, both also published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Siege of the Spirits

Community and Polity in Bangkok

By Michael Herzfeld

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33175-1


Claiming Culture

This is the story of a tiny community in the heart of a huge city — the community of Pom Mahakan, with its fewer than three hundred inhabitants, located among Bangkok's estimated population of slightly over 8.3 million registered inhabitants and in a nation-state of nearly eight times that number. The community (and its claims to being a community are part of our story) lives beside the small whitewashed fortress for which it is named — a round citadel with crenellations and a pointed roof, with defensive cannons pointing outward, incongruously, over the honking traffic in the street. The citadel — originally one of fourteen emplacements in the defensive city wall built by Rama I (the first king of the presently reigning dynasty) in 1782–86 — is a dramatic focal point, one of the only two fortresses to survive the passage of time. Of the wall itself, a thick white stone construction with elegant crenellations, there are considerable stretches, one of which is directly connected to Pom Mahakan. These recall the original city plan now irrevocably shattered by the modern avenue, Rachadamnoen, that was cut through the wall without violating the sacred orientation of the older city plan, thereby extending royal authority over the newly mapped and clearly defined territorial nation-state. The fortress was built in part to repel a feared French invasion; the subsequent construction of the avenue, by ironic contrast, was an attempt to create on Thai territory a modern ceremonial road that would rival the great city avenues of France. Their juxtaposition translates into urban and spatial terms the tension between enmity toward and emulation of the Western powers, a tension that also pits one way of imagining the Thai polity against another and that plays a central role in the struggle of the people of Pom Mahakan to remain as the residents and guardians of this historically significant site.

On the other side of the inhabited area, a canal still used as a public transportation route by noisy longtail boats separates Pom Mahakan from a neighboring community, also mostly made up of ramshackle, partially wooden houses and attached to the imposing Temple of the Golden Mount. In quiet moments, the houses on the other side are reflected in the canal's murky water, through which occasional tangles of twigs, plastic, and paper swirl, leaving a tail of dirty foam redolent of detergent soap. A few residents stake their fishing lines on the edge of the canal; poverty leaves poor choices even in the polluted waters that are all that is left of the old aquatic city. At other times, the sudden raucous rattle of longtail boat engines shatters the muggy calm of the day as boat operators call out and passengers, smartly dressed city folk and uniformed students and bureaucrats as well as casually clad tourists, hastily jump on board or clamber onto the narrow wooden landing stage.

Small Place, Large Issues

Pom Mahakan concentrates many dynamics in its small space: the tactical uses of history by poor residents and comfortably secure officials, the politics and ethics of eviction, concepts and consequences of attachment to place and past, the politics of culture across class and origins — all issues that lend themselves to comparison with the experiences of other poor communities around the world. The community seems to generate within its constricted location an intensity of experience that all the more brightly illuminates these larger processes.

The physical space is indeed spectacularly small. The dwelling places along the water are dwarfed by the looming golden stupa of the Temple of the Golden Mount (fig. 1). From high on the temple hill, only a few modest hints of human habitation break the leafy canopy that conceals the community, so that its presence does not disturb the sacred place soaring above it — a deeply revered symbolic, religious, and architectural lodestar and (appropriately enough) a physically high point in a city where height is the determinant and expression of status. The community has squeezed itself into a narrow strip between the wall extending from the citadel along Mahachai Road and the relatively wide and still-used Ong Ang Canal, and its humble and mostly dilapidated houses cower under the luxuriant growth. Some of the trees are of considerable antiquity; a few sport the saffron cloth that indicates that they have been ordained as though they were monks. That practice spread from the north of the country in recent years, the visible sign of an environmentalism that, by laying a protective benediction on a community's flora against the march of industrial development, has also reinforced the collective housing rights of residents.

Sacredness is everywhere in the inhabited space. Most strikingly, it appears in the spirit shrines perched on platforms atop spindly pillars. These are arrestingly domestic ritual structures; one sports an umbrella to protect it from the elements, while clothes hangers with laundry dangle from another, and many of them are sporadically treated to bottled soft drinks and other small gifts of refreshment. The shrines remind the living that the spirits of the dead live on, demanding respect and inclusion, and that they must be protected from the sacrilegious disrespect of unfeeling bureaucrats willing to bulldoze them into oblivion. The homes of these spirits, no less than those of the today's residents, are under siege; the spirited living and the spirits of the long dead face the same wrecking ball.

It is a bureaucratic, mechanized modernity that threatens them; and that modernity is never far away. On the far side of the old wall, traffic races madly across the Phahn Fah Lilaht Bridge toward the phantasmagoric postmodern city that is the commercial core of Bangkok, past huge hoardings with portraits of the royal family and a museum devoted to the life and reign of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), the last of the absolute monarchs and an enigmatic figure embodying many of the contradictions that still characterize Thailand's political life. Near the first opening in the old wall, huge fireworks made in the community await customers. Inside the wall, the spirits of today guard the silence of the past. A narrow dirt path separates the thick, crenellated city wall from dilapidated wooden houses where occasionally one or two women preside over softly sizzling woks; a cat stretched indolently across the path sees absolutely no reason to make way for intrusive strangers. At one point the path debouches onto a neatly maintained square, used for meetings, over which a dignified older wooden house looms under the lambent aureole of the Golden Mount stupa shimmering in the sun and framed by the triangular monochrome flags strung across the square for Children's Day. In one corner, a community shrine hosts an ever-changing cohort of Buddha images and other sacred objects; opposite stands the austere community museum and archive, a small white building in a simplified but unmistakably Thai architectural style.

Why, as I have been asked by puzzled Thai colleagues, focus so much attention on so tiny a site and population? Part of the answer lies in the context of historic conservation in Thailand. In seeking a site that would help me gauge the effects of heritage management on local populations, I had been drawn to the Rattanakosin City (or Island) Project — a conservation scheme designed to celebrate the reigning dynasty and the fortified urban core, created by the dynasty's first king. It seemed to offer what I was seeking: a space designated as possessing national historical significance, in which groups of people with diverse ethnic and geographical origins and linked by politically and socially complex relations were confronted with a state-controlled historic conservation regime. Its 1982 launch, on the two hundredth anniversary of the city's foundation, officially framed the project in terms of a rigidly historicist and nationally homogeneous understanding of time.

Within that larger setting, the story of the Pom Mahakan community is a story of a truly spirited resistance to overwhelming national and civic power; but it is also a story of extraordinary fealty to that power — the power monumentally represented by the grandiose ambitions of the Rattanakosin City Project. The tension between resistance and loyalty, moreover, while far from unusual in Thailand, appears here with a clarity that makes the case of Pom Mahakan exceptionally revealing of the country's cultural politics. Such tensions appear in many countries as what Kevin O'Brien (1996) has dubbed "rightful resistance," a stance that operates respectfully toward constituted authority and generally avoids outright violence. In Thailand, those tensions reveal and reproduce substantial divergences between the bureaucratic, European-derived nation-state and an older, more fluid political idiom often encountered elsewhere in Southeast Asia as well.

The city authorities, operating in bureaucratic and legalistic terms, have repeatedly tried to evict the community in its entirety and to replace it with an expanse of lawn enclosed by stylized balustrades in gleaming white. Largely thwarted in this goal, which forms part of a larger plan to showcase the old city center as a monument to the greater glory of the monarchy and the nation, the authorities have mounted legal challenges to the community's legitimacy and right to remain on the site. Yet the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has also never completely annulled all official recognition of the community; most important, it recognizes internally elected community committee members as "the administrators of the communities whose task is to undertake community work and organize its activities throughout the year." At the same time, the municipal authorities' spectacular neglect of the front area that they did succeed in taking over — it has become an embarrassing mess of cracked pathways among puddles and persistent litter — raises serious questions about their capacity to achieve more than the destruction of existing homes, in what Qin Shao has so aptly called "domicide," and their replacement by an aching void in the heart of the city. So the future direction of municipal policy remains ambiguous, even murky — as murky as the stagnant water dotting the bedraggled lawn that is still the embarrassingly visible centerpiece of official conservation at Pom Mahakan.

Institutional and Political Background

Such half-baked results of municipal effort are far from rare. Perhaps that failure stems in part from the fact that the BMA is a comparatively recent part of the administrative machinery of state and has been constantly bedeviled by organizational and political difficulties. Created in its present form in 1973, in the same year that a student revolt at Thammasat University precipitated a short-lived experiment in democratic governance at the national level, it was headed after the first two and a half years by an elected governor representing the Democrat Party. This governor, however, clashed repeatedly with the military dictatorship that had brutally suppressed the democratic experiment in 1976, and was soon removed and replaced by new government-appointed officials. Since then, Thailand has continued to lurch between variable degrees of democracy and direct military rule.

It was not until late 1985, three years before one of Thailand's periodic returns from military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, that an election for the governor's office was held again — this time by a former military man and devoutly ascetic Buddhist, Chamlong Srimuang, who was later to oppose the short military takeover of 1991–92 but then, in 2006, having played a prominent role in street protests against the five-year-old government of populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, actively supported the military coup that overthrew Thaksin. Subsequent governors were also elected; one of them, Samak Sundaravej (2000–2004), a former president of the Rattanakosin City Project Committee and perhaps for that reason an implacable foe of the Pom Mahakan community, went on to become prime minister. In that role he was widely viewed as a "proxy" for Thaksin, who had been deposed in 2006 by a military junta that then permitted elections at the end of 2007. Samak's premiership, beginning late in January 2008, lasted only seven months, as he was then forced out of office — technically by the Constitutional Court, because he had illegally continued, while in office, to earn a separate salary as a television chef, but perhaps in political reality because the Yellow Shirt supporters, protesting his rule and the arrest of their hero Chamlong, had occupied Government House. After his successor, Thaksin's brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat, took the reins of office, the Yellow Shirts occupied the government's temporary refuge at the old Don Muang airport and took over the main (Suvarnabhumi) airport, triggering a further series of reactions that led to army pressures on several parliamentary deputies to defect from the government and support a transfer of power to the Democrat Party under Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The term "democrat" clearly has variable implications in Thai; the name of the Democrat Party has shifted significance in the Thai political spectrum over its long life. This semantic instability may become more comprehensible as we see how the authoritarian side of Thai political life merges with an equally strong egalitarian impulse — a cornerstone of the argument of this book. In any conventional sense, for example, Samak, while clearly an ally of Thaksin's populist supporters, was no democrat. In 1976 he had been implicated in the massacre of students at Bangkok's Thammasat University during the military takeover of that year, and he continued a career of persecuting suspected leftists; moreover, when he became governor of Bangkok, his management style was harshly insensitive to the needs and aspirations of the urban poor. Like Thaksin — who has puzzled commentators because his welfare policies seemed to conflict with his huge commercial interests, and whose adherence to democratic principles did not prevent him from attacking NGOs and academics with ideas different from his own — Samak displayed a personal style that encapsulated extremes of populist-democratic and authoritarian elements, although his performance, predictably in terms of his ideological past, extended much more strongly to the latter. Such apparent self-contradictions in style and substance are crucial to understanding Thai politics, and form a recurrent theme in the story of Pom Mahakan.

Samak's successor as governor, Apirak Kosayodhin, who plays a very different role in the story of this book, represented the Democrat Party, of which he also became a vice president. Entering office with a campaign platform that included promises of radical institutional reform, he won a second term in 2008 but left office later that same year under the shadow of a scandal possibly created for him (although this is unverifiable) by backstabbing bureaucrats — many of whom evidently preferred the legalistic Samak's uncompromising leadership style. Apirak's successor, fellow Democrat Party member and minor royal Sukhumbhand Paribatra, was still at the helm at the time of writing, having won election to a second four-year term in 2013. The Democrat Party, meanwhile, operates under the shadow of accusations that its behavior over the previous several years had been anything other than appropriate to its name; the unelected Abhisit government had attacked the "Red Shirts" demonstrating on the streets and hung on to power until May 2011. Elections in that month brought Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, to power at the head of the political party (Pheu Thai, or "on behalf of the Thais") that had emerged from the ruins of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai and its successor under Samak, the People's Power Party. But Yingluck's time in office was brief. Soon after a national election scheduled for February 2014 failed to reach completion, the Constitutional Court dismissed her for an alleged miscarriage of procedure; the street protests against her party's continuing rule, this time by the "Yellow Shirts" — who were bitterly opposed to the Shinwatra family and to their populist and welfarist policies, and who claimed to be acting in support of the monarchy — and the politicians' inability to resolve their differences and proceed to a complete national election provided the pretext for the military coup of 22 May 2014.


Excerpted from Siege of the Spirits by Michael Herzfeld. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Claiming Culture 1

2 Community, City, and Polity 44

3 The State and the City 66

4 Law, Courtesy, and the Tactics of Temporality 90

5 Currents and Countercurrents 125

6 Time, Sound, and Rhythm 148

7 The Polity in Miniature 168

6 Building the Future of the Past 187

Notes 205

References 239

Index 255

What People are Saying About This

Peter van der Veer

“Herzfeld gives us a wonderfully crafted example of engaged anthropology in his analysis of both developmentalist and civilizational discourse in Thailand. Full of stimulating insights, it is a passionate and intimate account of the struggle of a small, poor community in Bangkok. Urban ethnography at its critical best.”

Oscar Salemink

“A virtuoso ethnographer and writer, Herzfeld dissects the heritage effects of the Pom Mahakan citadel in Bangkok on the surrounding neighborhood in vivid detail. Echoing Leach in the urban jungle, he looks over the shoulders of the protagonists by describing how the neighborhood navigates between the cultural model of the older mandala-style, segmentary polity as a moral community (moeang) and the culturally alien model of the centralized bureaucratic state (prathaet). This book is a must-read for Southeast Asianists, scholars of heritage, urban planners, and urban anthropologists alike.”

Erik Harms

“This vivid book shows just how ugly the top-down politics of beautification and heritage can be. More important, it also shows that the real beauty of Bangkok lies in the creativity of communities like Pom Mahakan, whose residents play with the idioms of power both to co-opt and to resist the will of those seeking to bulldoze their lives. Herzfeld’s account bursts with energy—the writing is nimble, and the theorizing is grounded in anthropological classics but always tied to the realities of the case at hand. In this way, the book carefully guides the reader through the complexities of Thai politics without ever getting in the way of the story.”

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