“A Microcosm of the Country, an Example for the World”: An Interview with Michael Herzfeld
For more than two decades, the people living in Bangkok’s Pom Mahakan community have been facing possible eviction. In recent weeks, a deadline set by the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) expired and the first wooden houses have been torn down. Michael Herzfeld, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, has written a book about the community and its continuous struggle (“Siege of the Spirits. Community and Polity in Bangkok”, University of Chicago Press, 2016). We have interviewed Professor Herzfeld who, besides numerous other affiliations, is currently also an Honorary Fellow at the Center for Contemporary Social and Cultural Studies, Thammasat University. Photo: Harvard Anthropology.
Professor Herzfeld, the most recent deadline set by the BMA demanding the residents of Pom Mahakan to give up and leave their homes has expired. Which actions did the BMA take as a consequence?
The BMA came in on 6 March and destroyed four houses, one of which had been specially marked by the residents as being of historical interest, and another of which was a new house constructed with funds brought together through the rotating credit system created by the community itself. They basically destroyed on the one hand a piece of old Bangkok and, on the other hand, a rather remarkable monument of a social movement that endeavoured to address the question of housing at a time when there is in fact housing shortage.
You mentioned that the residents marked some of their houses as historic. Can you describe this process?
The residents have been working very closely with a range of people, including professional architects and lawyers as well as students, including students from Thammasat University and elsewhere. They developed a very good historical knowledge of the architecture and labelled those houses according to the particular reign or royal period to which they date. That knowledge has been part of what they used to protect themselves. They argued that at least those old houses, including some that were built during the reign of Rama IX, should be preserved. Their conception of history is very different from that of the officials. They see history as something that continues up to the present time. They see history as something that includes their own experiences. Some of them are descendants of people who lived on the site for at least three generations. Some are people who have come relatively recently to the site. So, I would argue that they are right, that a realistic understanding of history would in fact permit recognition of this involvement.
What are the BMA’s plans? How shall this piece of land be used in the future according to these plans?
It is very interesting because it is not clear what their plans are. There are two public announcements in form of posters that they have put up. One of them essentially shows an empty lawn with some decorative material and the other shows a few houses being preserved. I think the first one is the original plan and the one they are probably aiming at. But perhaps they hope, as someone suggested, that the architects who have sided with the community will be content if a few of the old houses are preserved. Our argument is that there is no point in preserving them if there are no people who take care of them. These are wooden houses, and they would decay very quickly in any case if they were not properly conserved.
The evidence is that the BMA would not really be able to protect the site and keep it in good shape. If you look at the front area that has been under their control for thirteen years now, it is a disgrace to the city and to the country. It is full of garbage. In the rainy season, the lawn fills up very quickly with puddles; the concrete pathway that they constructed is cracked and broken in several places. The place is used for unknown purposes in the night-time. It appears that some people go there to sleep. When I recently asked a functionary at the BMA why the BMA did not at least try to make an effort to clean that area up and make it look like how they want the rest of the place to look, he responded: “Our people are frightened to go in there”. That answer speaks for itself. If the BMA cannot do better than that, they would be better off handing it over to people who really love the place, identify with it, feel as though it is their place and who are willing to serve as functionaries to the BMA in exchange for the right to live there.
The BMA’s concept is that of a monumental park with very little in it and certainly without any people in it. At one point, the BMA made the legalistic argument that there could not be a set of private residences in a public park, that this would constitute a conflict of definitions. The reality is that the law that governs the situation could in fact be amended, and the residents did at one point show how that could be done. During the time of Governor Samak, the residents constructed a garden. In Thai, there is no distinction between garden and park. “Suan satharana” (สวนสธารณะ) can mean both. The residents took it to mean that it would be a garden also in honour of Her Majesty the Queen, because that was the original plan for that park. Governor Samak then sent in truckloads of garbage, left over from cleaning up the APEC meetings. He had the garbage dumped on top of the garden. At that point, the residents decided that they would dig the garbage into the ground and use it as fertilizer. But then soldiers came and cleared them out and that was the end of that. I find it, also historically, extraordinary that the present BMA seems to be continuing such policies.
Moreover, there is a determination on the part of the BMA not to listen to the opinions of foreigners. The result is that they are repeating many of the mistakes that were made in the West. We need to ask two questions: First, what do we mean by “making the place beautiful”? In other words, beauty in whose eyes? Second, what does cleanliness mean in this context? Anthropologists, ever since Mary Douglas wrote her famous book called Purity and Danger, talked about cleanliness not as a matter of hygiene but as a matter of symbolism, in which dirt is basically about things that do not fit in. In the middle-class view of Bangkok, which is a very Western-leaning view even if it claims to be basically Thai, street markets, street vendors and something like Pom Mahakan represent a violation of that sense of order. We need to ask very carefully what people here understand by order and whether in fact everybody agrees. There are certainly people in Bangkok who agree with the BMA’s policy. This is partly because the BMA has been successful at bad-mouthing the community. It is also partly because the community represents something that maybe some middle-class people would rather forget because it is, in many cases, also part of their own origins.
The case of Pom Mahakan actually offers the opportunity to show the world that Thailand has an exportable model for how to deal with inhabited historic sites and, especially, an example of self-governance by a community that, in my international experience, is – if not unique – very unusual. And it is in certain respects very Thai. So why destroy such a precious resource when in fact you could use it to foreground some of the country’s achievements? Some of these achievements are brought about by ordinary people.
What could be the motive behind the BMA’s approach? Could it be money? Is this a case of gentrification?
That does not seem to be the case. Of course, one can wonder who might profit from constructing the garden. It is not really a case of gentrification because gentrification involves residential buildings and that is exactly what they are trying to get rid of. On the other hand, from the perspective of the Crown Property Bureau, for example, I would be very concerned about what the BMA is doing. One should ask the Crown Property Bureau what they think of it. Because, if the BMA clears out, that space in the night-time could very easily become a place for drug dealers or pushers. That would cause the value of the neighbouring land to go down. Who wants to live in an area with something like an intensified version of New York Central Park right in the middle?
There has been a lack of coordination among the various players here. The BMA used to allege, and still sometimes apparently alleges, that the residents are a bunch of drug addicts, prostitutes and crooks. Nothing could be further from the truth. The residents actually dealt with what had been a drug problem many years ago in cooperation with the national police. The police helped them to create a community police force that was given the right to arrest people whom they found were using drugs. These community police, however, went above their work, not to the extent of Thaksin’s war on drugs, but by going to the family members of the drug users, telling them to put pressure on their relatives, especially the women, because otherwise they would be forced to leave the community. Aside from a couple of very old people, who I think were just allowed to die quietly because they were at the end of their lives anyway, they ended up with no one using drugs in their community. And I am morally certain that you will not find any drug users there. Of course, I cannot swear that there is not a single person there who uses them, but I have no evidence of any.
What is the legal status of the residents and what legal arguments are put forward by the BMA?
The legal situation is formally on the side of the BMA. I do not want to pretend otherwise. Formal decisions have been made by courts of law in the Thai justice system that have made it very clear that the residents are in formal violation of the law. The question is whether the law could be changed. It is a special law regarding the Rattanakosin Island development. That part of it that concerns Pom Mahakan basically says that it is a public park and the courts handed out the decision that private residences are not permitted in a public park. At this point, a number of the supporters of the community, including people with legal backgrounds and legal experience, came forward to say that the law itself could actually be changed.
The residents’ argument is that, if there is some way of reinterpreting the law, then that should be tried. Even in the most positivistic framework, law always does involve some recognition of precedent. Also, law has to be interpreted. There is no such thing as a literal or bedrock meaning of a law. Bureaucrats in general are trained essentially to act as though the law always has an exact and literal meaning while in practice managing it through selective interpretation. It seems to me that it has much more to do with a change of attitude than with any radical change in the law. Yes, there are legal impediments to allowing the community to stay. I do not dispute the BMA’s official statements about this. What I dispute is the idea that that situation cannot be reversed. If the central government intervened, it could actually bring that situation about and the BMA would then be forced to comply.
In talking to any level of government about this, I would like to make the following point. You want to create a clean city, which is always a good idea at least in terms of hygiene. You also want to create a usable city. Go and see the mess that the BMA has controlled for thirteen years in the front part and go and see the extraordinary, beautiful and ordered place that the community has created on the inside of the area. That difference will give you all the answers you want about who is more capable of maintaining cleanliness and order in a more literal sense.
Can you tell us more about the history of that community? When was it founded and where did former and current residents come from?
The original community was founded by King Rama III. in the early 19th century. He gave that strip of land to a group of Palace bureaucrats. Those people and their descendants gradually moved away so that the majority of the people currently living there now are people who have come over the last forty or fifty years. Some of them have come relatively recently, although there are several families who claim to descend from earlier inhabitants. The argument that the people have come more recently and are therefore not part of the history of the site is nonsense. They are a particular part of that history. They are representatives of a phenomenon that we have seen in Bangkok in many parts of the city, and I believe that they represent a very important part of the city’s history.
The problem is that the official historiography focuses entirely on what one might call its own part of the story, a history that is laid out in terms of the royal reigns and the role of the Buddhist religion, which is perfectly fine, but what is missing is the story of people who came to Bangkok to find a way of life that would be more gentle to them than what they had experienced in the more impoverished parts of the country. By now, the population has come to reflect in many ways the cultural variety of the country as a whole, and the residents are trying to present themselves as a microcosm of the country.
Who lives at Pom Mahakan today?
All generations are represented. Most of the people who have active work are food vendors. They go out on the streets, they depend on being in that area, because that is where they have established their clientele.
They certainly are all very much versed in the language of central Thailand, the official language of the country. Sometimes, in the past, there were demonstrations by people coming from the North-East, for example. The people in Bangkok made fun of them because they did not really know how to present their ideas in a way that was considered polite in Bangkok. The people who live in Pom Mahakan now have demonstrated an extraordinary command of the rhetoric that is appropriate for the political life here. They compensated for what might be seen as a lack of formal education by educating themselves. They have learned a lot about the history of the site. I can give you one example. There was one man who had been a Palace policeman. He must be very old now. He used to live in another community and he had a collection of old postcards, stamps, clocks and all kinds of things. In this collection, somebody discovered that there was some documentation that showed that Pom Mahakan was the first place in Bangkok where the drama performance “likae” (ลิเก) had been performed. So, the residents then put on a likae performance there. This is an example of the people’s initiative.
From a political perspective, I should add that the majority of the residents in the community are not in any sense associated with opposition to the current government. They are in that sense very law-abiding. They are also somewhat right-leaning. Moreover, they are very proud of the fact that, during the Red-Shirt/Yellow-Shirt confrontations, they had a number of representatives of both groups, but there was never enough tension between them to disrupt the community. That again shows the strength of the community and makes it rather unusual. But again, if it is unusual in this regard, and if it is presenting such a wonderful example of being able to work together, why not showcase this to the world?
The city’s plans to clear out Pom Mahakan date back to the 1990s. How did the residents manage to resist until today? How did they organize themselves?
The most remarkable thing about the community is the unity that they have shown in this. There was a small amount of factionalism in the community, as there is everywhere. But it was very small. The BMA has put so much pressure on them. Even though the community has begun to crack a bit, by and large, they hung together. With some help of NGOs and others, they created a rotating credit fund that involves all the households. I have voluminous notes, recordings and video recordings I took in 16 hours of meetings in which the community was trying to figure out how best to combine their professional needs with the best way of living together. Their approach was very much based on the “Baan Mankong Collective Housing” program.
They have a very strong leadership, democratically elected within the community. The problem is that they kept electing the same people over and over. Some of those people would actually very happily have handed over to others. But there is the traditional Thai attitude that some people are made to be leaders and some people are made to be followers. Overall, however, their leadership was seen as very strong. When Governor Apirak Kosayodhin was in office, he recognized this and he used to describe the community as resilient. He thought he could rely on them to hang in there while he tried to negotiate a change of the situation. He was the one Governor who, with the help of Professor Chatri Prakitnonthakan of Silpakorn University, actually understood the necessity of creating a viable plan that combined the idea of a public park with the people living in the park and having responsibility for its maintenance.
In Thailand as well as in other countries in the region, there are numerous sources of norms besides the law, such as social hierarchy, moral authority or family networks. How do these norms interact and which role do they play in the case of Pom Mahakan?
Southeast Asia in general is characterized by a constant tension between authoritarianism and egalitarianism, which coexist very often in the rhetoric and behavior of the same individual person. The current president of the Pom Mahakan community is a perfect illustration of this. He has a manner that is quite striking at times, but he also uses that to try to encourage people to speak out. I have attended many meetings where that happened.
Obviously, the highest authority in the land is His Majesty and the power that he represents. The Pom Mahakan residents are loyal citizens in their respect for the institutions of monarchy.
Coming to the issue of family: The word “khrop khrua” (ครอบครัว) in Thai actually means “a group of people gathered around the hearth”. In Pom Mahakan, people sometimes come out of their houses and prepare the food together. Especially when there is a visitor, they would bring food to the central area and sit down together for a feast. They talk of themselves as a “khrop khrua”. If we think of the word in its more literal meaning rather than in a Western sense of a family unit or the nuclear family, we can see exactly what the residents’ leadership means when it says: “We are a khrop khrua.” They live like a family in that sense. This is one of the sources of their mutual respect.
As an anthropologist who studies legal issues, I would argue that the institutions of local level government that are part of the Thai tradition are very strong and they have been strengthened while the pressure was put on them by the BMA. The BMA likes to think that this is not a real community. But actually, the BMA turned it into a real community. Now, they are trying to destroy what they created to some extent. The residents themselves will say: ”If we had not had this kind of pressure, we would have never come together to the same extent.”
There are many overlapping and sometimes conflicting sources of legitimacy and authority in the Thai society as there are everywhere. We should not forget that some of the models that are prominent in Thailand are of British and French origin. What I call the crypto-colonial state has continued to exercise a strong influence on the way the people think about these things. For example, the model of “khwaam suay ngaam” (ความสวยงาม), meaning the model of urban beauty or beautification, is based on a middle-class, Western-European model. It is antithetical to what looks like a rather messy arrangement of a community in which economic, religious, social and political activities overlap with each other.
The funny thing is that Westerners like to point to ancient Greece as the model. But some ancient Greek nations, and Athens anyway, were places where these things did also overlap. It is in fact the work of German historians and chronologists of the 18th and 19th century that brought Westerners to think of this separation of functions as a Western ideal. That separation of functions then became an important part of what we now call high modernism of which probably the most egregious example is Brasília, the capital of Brazil. There, you can find, for example, a tourist agencies sector with 17 travel agencies in the same block. That is fine if you have a car and you are able to get around the city. But the poor people are forced to go very long distances from out of the city where they live. They have to use very bad public transportation. I would hate to see Bangkok ending up the same way.
A city that manages to keep its poorer population in the center is also able to help that population to gentrify itself. I developed a concept of self-gentrification out of something that I saw in Greece in the town of Rethemnos on the island of Crete, which was also the subject of another book of mine called A place in history. Rethemnos was a place where people initially wanted to get rid of their old houses that were built during the Venetian and Ottoman period. In some cases, the houses dated back as far as the 15th and 16th centuries. Most people in the 1960s and 70s who were living there thought that these were uncomfortable houses, not civilized. In 1974, however, the then mayor of Rethemnos and the government, which was also a military government at the time, though very much at its end, slapped a conservation order on the whole town with a population then of about 6,000. The result was that nobody could make any major changes. Over the intervening years, the people came to realize that they had been saved from destroying something very valuable that is now a source of wealth for them in a country that is generally undergoing economic distress. This is one of the few places in Greece that looks prosperous. When I went there the first time at the end of the 1960s, it was one of the poorest places in Greece, which was not a wealthy country back then either.
So there is an example from which the people of the BMA could learn. But they are totally uninterested in hearing what anyone has to say and they do not see why foreign examples should be relevant to the current situation, even though, consciously or otherwise, what they are doing is following bad and outdated foreign models.
Are you worried that Pom Mahakan could become a precedent for Bangkok or Thailand?
I think that is what the BMA is actually afraid of. They fear that if Pom Mahakan does not fall to their desires, they would not be able to control the whole Rachadamnoen area. There are well over twenty communities down Rachadamnoen Road. All of which are terrified of what might happen with Pom Mahakan because they see it as something that will then happen to them as well. Good governance here would mean bringing those communities into a serious discussion of how the policy might be changed, so that the people who live in the communities will become responsible for their maintenance and for something that will certainly attract the intelligent part of the tourist population as well.
This is another interesting point: if they want to develop it as a tourist area and they make the same mistakes that were made in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy in the 1960s and 70s, which is what they seem to be doing, then the country will in fact sustain very serious losses. What the Pom Mahakan people are proposing is in itself a win-win situation. It could indeed then be applied to other cases but that will require a significant change of attitude on the part of the BMA. The onus is on them either to make that change and prove that they can grasp this amazing opportunity, or explain to the world and to history why they failed to do so.
Are there nonetheless any positive trends in global urban planning which draw on lessons-learned, maybe even taking into account anthropological knowledge?
Yes, there are changes beginning to happen. We now see that planners are beginning to learn some anthropology. I actually held a courtesy appointment at our Graduate School of Design at Harvard. Some of our students both in design and in anthropology are learning about each other’s disciplines. There is much more of a conversation going on. This is the way of the future, I hope.
The problem is that most of the precedents are very depressing and mistakes like these have been made over and over again. One of the results of these mistakes is that there are more and more homeless people. I remember that Governor Samak, at the time, described the homeless people being like ’stray dogs’ which is a very severe insult in Thai culture. That problem has certainly not gone away, quite the opposite. Even though the precedents are not encouraging, we may still hope that Thailand will finally be the country that sets a good example to the world.
On the other hand, I was looking at very similar problems in Italy, right in the heart of Rome, where the convergence of economic interests on the part of developers, the Vatican City, the banks, a few private owners and a population of renters had led to a disastrous situation where now whole areas are completely gentrified and most of the original people have left. Now, there is very little sense of community life because people who live there treat it almost as a dormitory. That is not good for city centers and they eventually get deserted. We know that also from the American case. I recently published an article about urban beautification published in the Journal of Urban Design. There is now an interest in that kind of conversation. I do believe that human beings are capable of learning from their mistakes. One of the lessons we teach our students in anthropology is that fieldwork is all about learning from mistakes.
You have mentioned the community’s unusual and unique character. Was it this uniqueness that caught your attention, or how did you come to work on Pom Mahakan?
Every situation is unique, of course. One of the jobs of an anthropologist is to try to indicate how the uniqueness of a particular situation speaks to a more general picture. I would say that I did not find the community. The community found me: I had done research on historical memory and historic conservation in both Greece and Italy, and I was thinking that, if I wanted to research in Thailand, it would make sense to focus on the same general theme. I chose the Rattanakosin Island as a general area and I thought I would do my work with maybe five or six communities in that area. I very soon found that people were much too busy. Part of the reason was that I was working in a market area. The people there were merchants, and they were busy making money. My Thai at that time was very bad, and they were not interested in talking about history at all. One day, a representative of one of the NGOs said he was going over to Pom Mahakan because there was a protest. He asked if I would like to accompany him. I nearly said no, but I decided after all that I had nothing to lose. As a matter of fact, I was not getting very far with the research I was doing. So, I decided to go and see.
The first thing I heard was: “We are a historically significant community!”, and I asked “Why?” They sat up and asked me in a very public way what I would do to help them and I said: “Look, I am not a politician, I am not here to make promises, but if you help me to collect the kind of data that would allow me to understand the situation, then I can tell you if I can give you any help that you ask for. I am not going to inflict it on you.” And then we began to know each other and they were very happy to talk to me. They put up with my bad Thai and very quickly improved it by telling me when I made mistakes. They were quite open and forthright, and we developed a very close relationship. That was the beginning, and that enabled me to see things more from their point of view.
The residents were very open, very kind and very patient. They obviously saw me as a resource as well, and I told them that they were welcome to do so, because, after all, one of the features of anthropological research is a kind of reciprocity. Although I am currently not doing any research there, I am obviously still interested in the fate of the community. Moreover, these are my personal friends. But the story that I tell in my book is actually a story of how they came to be using their understanding of history and culture as the strongest argument for continuing to live on the site. I learned a great deal from them about human dignity. In many ways, I feel s though I was the student and they were all my teachers.
I often said that, if I became Governor of Bangkok, my first priority would be to require every bureaucrat in the BMA to spend three months in a slum community. They would end up with a much deeper respect for the sheer humanity and human dignity of people who live under often very difficult conditions as the people from Pom Mahakan have been doing. Many bureaucrats do not really understand the lifestyle of people like those residents.
Your book “Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok” presents the life of the people in Pom Mahakan and their struggle with the public authorities in a very detailed way. What were major challenges or obstacles in gathering these accounts?
Writing anthropology is always a tough job. The details really count and you have to decide what details are worth mentioning. One problem I had was that there was really no space for me to live in this community. I had to live nearby and keep coming in. This makes it a little bit harder to get some information. Nonetheless, over the years, I managed to do that. I had to improve my knowledge of Thai history, religion and culture, which was a wonderful experience and I had a lot of help from Thai colleagues and friends. I will forever be indebted to them, as I am to the residents as they also helped me to understand a great deal. I rarely ran into a refusal to talk to me. Also the people of the BMA were unfailingly courteous and I almost never had a problem with getting their point of view. It is interesting that the people of the community felt that I should also talk to the BMA. They were not afraid of my going there. The community president said: “You must go and talk to the BMA and hear their point of view”, which I did, and I tried to represent this in my book. Surely, there were times when I did not really understand what was going on and I had to ask a lot of questions which probably tried their patience. That is why these things take a lot of time. What you see in that book is the product of a learning experience.
I previously did a book on reciprocal animal theft in villages on the mountains on West Central Crete. I identified a legal code which does not exist in written form but has certainly existed there for centuries and governs certain practices that the state regards as illegal. I tried to show that there are two kinds of polity that are in some ways working against each other. In the case of Pom Mahakan, there is a formal state, very much modeled on British and French models in the 19th century, in counterpoint with a traditional Siamese model of a city as a mandala. I found a lot of evidence for that in the community and I did not recognize it immediately. That is why you have to wait a long time, look at the evidence you have, read as much as you can, try to understand both from within and from outside.
If I have managed to give a useful account of the community, I would be very happy. I could not have done it without the cooperation of the people there and without the cooperation of the BMA staff members who were willing to let me attend and record public meetings. They were very helpful in facilitating meetings at various times. I just ended up disagreeing more and more with what the BMA actually had to say about what the eventual resolution should be.
You are one of the most prominent advocates of the Pom Mahakan community. What would you respond to critics who demand that academics shall remain neutral and not take sides?
I would respond that the idea of academic neutrality is a myth, especially in the human sciences. One can distance oneself to some extent. I try to understand the dilemma faced by BMA bureaucrats who are really scared of agreeing to something that might put them into the position of having broken the law. But the idea that one can be completely uninvolved strikes me as unrealistic. What is more, if I had not gotten involved, I do not think that the residents would have trusted me to the point of handing to me data that actually turned out to be very useful. Also, I saw things in the community that I was only allowed to see because I was encouraged to attend their meetings. I give you an example, one that I use quite often in fact: There were a couple of meetings that I was videotaping where a man became really drunk, or he was drunk when he arrived. He started to yell at the community leaders, incoherently. Instead of kicking him out, which is what we would have seen in any European society or America during a town meeting, one member of the community just came up to him and started massaging his back. He then calmed down, looked around in a disgruntled way and eventually shrugged his shoulders and shambled off. Of course, he did not feel great, but he did not lose face to the extent that he would have done if he had been kicked out.
This is a fair indication of the way in which the community looks after its own affairs. And it happened twice. I was really quite impressed by this. At one point, one of the community leaders said: “You know, you really shouldn’t tell anyone that we had drunks in the community. That would simply be bad for our reputation.” I said: “Show me a community where nobody ever gets drunk. Let’s be realistic here.” And I told him: “I have to tell the story of how you dealt with the drug problem in the community years ago. I have seen enough that convinced me that it is true. But some people are not going to find it easy to believe. If you then want to tell them, on top of that, that nobody ever gets drunk, I do not think they are going to believe anything I say.” He thought for a moment, and these people are very good at weighing evidence and thinking about the issue, and he said: “Actually, I think you’re right.” And, essentially, he said: “Go ahead and write about it”, so I did.
Were you sometimes afraid that, just by your presence and interaction, you would alter the object of your study, the community and their self-perception?
First of all, I was not the only academic present. I tried to write about the role of the academics in the book as well. Second, I am sure that I reinforced something. But to reinforce something also means that something is already there. Third, I do not think that my influence was that great. I came to a community that had already been under pressure and was already formulating many of its responses, sometimes with the help of local academics and NGOs. But certainly, my role in that sense was very minor. At most, I may have given them a little bit more courage to go ahead. I know that they were very appreciative of my interest and we became good friends. But I do not think that they would have done anything very differently if I had not been there. Over the 13 years, I did not just go there as a journalist for two, four days at most. That is really the essence of anthropological research. We do insist on a long period of doing our work. I am currently not formally doing research there, but of course everything that happens there interests me and it could be that it would become relevant in some future way.
In the old days, some of our teachers used to say: You should never become too involved with a community because then you cannot observe objectively any more. More recently, the epistemological critique of objectivism has become much stronger, also in anthropology. Lévi-Strauss thought that he had discovered tribes that never had any contact with Europeans. But if you look at the first photographs that he took of the Nambikwara tribe, there is a jerrycan right in the middle of the photograph. It must have got there before him. So the idea of a pure and untouched community is itself a myth. What is interesting is that the bureaucrats tend to frame their attitude in these very positivistic terms. They talk for example about how the residents are not the original inhabitants, the “khon dang doem” (คนดั้งเดิม) to use the Thai phrase. There is no such thing as “dang doem”. There is always some earlier phase in which people move from somewhere. Of course, there was the moment of foundation of that community. But by now the culture has changed a lot anyway. And that is going to be true anywhere.
We are not talking about a fossil. We are talking about a living community. And living communities also add people. So, rather than trying to frame this in terms of an objective account, we should frame this as a richly detailed account and then let people who read it decide how they feel. In the end, our judgment is dependent on what we know. My goal is to provide as much knowledge of the community and the way it connects with a lot of history in Thailand as I could.
Did you write the book also to preserve the legacy of Pom Mahakan in case that it might not continue to exist?
Aside from the academic goals, there were two other goals: One was that I thought, maybe not consciously, that there should be a record. But there are other records. There was a book written in Thai about the community and there are certainly lots and lots of other records. The more important motive was that this could be useful to all the parties concerned in reaching a serious agreement. That is why I am distressed to see that there is really no interest on the part of the authorities.
Is there going to be a translation into Thai?
I am hoping that it might be translated. I think there is some interest in getting it translated into Thai. I would very much like to see that happen. I would hope that it would be useful to the BMA as well as to the community. But if the people at the BMA read it honestly and openly, I also do not see how they could fail then to see that their current policy is not good for Bangkok and is not good for them.
Thank you for this interview, Professor Herzfeld!
The interview was conducted by Dr. Lasse Schuldt and Jan Kliem, CPG.