Private land ownership in villages in Northern Thailand is precise, as it is throughout the country. Every plot of land is owned by someone or else by the government. A privately owned piece of real estate is described on a chanote tii din, a document which locates the plot exactly in relationship to landmarks, especially cement posts that have been planted by government survey teams working for the Land Bureau, a branch of the Agriculture Ministry. [See the picture above]. The copy of the chanote tii din, or real estate deed, in the land owner’s possession is one of two identical documents, the other one being kept in the local Land Bureau office along with the master record.
People living in a village usually have two types of land, one where their residence is and the other(s) which are farm land nearby. A plot of land can be owned by any Thai citizen. Family members can claim the right to have a say in the disposal of (sale or irreversible changes to) land they are in line to legally inherit. Presumably this is to insure that no person can become landless against their will, but it seriously compromises the concept of land ownership.
As with all aspects of village culture, private land ownership can be divided into three historical phases: past, passing, and present (coming to be). Also, as with other facets of village culture the transitions are slow. That lassitude includes the phase that introduced private land ownership and the issuance of chanote tii din documents, the era now passing.
Before agricultural land was privately owned it was owned by the “Lords of the Land”, princes of the city states. In our case here in the North the Lord was the head of the Lanna Principality (or kingdom). The fact that people did not own their land hardly mattered in those days. Traditions reigned. Families knew which plots they farmed and that was recognized by everyone. The irrigation system was maintained jointly. Public works projects were done by conscripted labor, with most able-bodied males required to give 3 months a year to this. There was no standing army, but those same men served if need arose. Public land was mostly forests on hills. Local people felt free to cut wood they needed. The overall principle of the time was “subsistence living.”
In 1901 King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, instituted the most significant long-range innovation of his revolutionary reign. He mandated that people had the right to own the land they farmed and lived on. The government set about regulating this land reform by surveying the country and marking it into plots – along traditional irrigation routes and field dikes.
There are two ways to consider the King’s land reform. First of all it was part of modernizing Siam, and not incidentally creating a vast new dimension to the economy. Second, in a stroke, it deprived the traditional princes of their sources of power and wealth, which was key to centralizing power in Bangkok to counter threats of colonization by France and Great Britain.
Technically, this land reform was the end of serfdom, and the King emphasized it by ending slavery as well. In many cases slavery was not what we think, but was forced movement of people for the benefit of different Lords of the Land, and in other cases a way of paying off debts through uncompensated work. The movement of people also had a political aspect. When one of the Lanna princes moved a community of paper craftsmen from Burma to Hang Dong District in Chiang Mai, they were technically slaves, but actually privileged by being exempt from taxes and labor conscription and were given prime land which displaced those who had been living there. This resulted in social polarization in that community for well over two hundred years into the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Several major issues emerged right away, the biggest being: (1) how to manage new land that had not been farmed before, (2) and how to deal with land transfers and sales. Integral to the land reforms was the desire to expand agriculture to be a major part of foreign trade and foreign exchange (which was, of course, a matter of governmental rather than local concern). Rice and other products were needed as timber was running out. This new agricultural expansion meant extending the irrigation system to service land at higher elevations and also deciding who was entitled to this new land being put into production. In effect, the land was made available to those who would actually use it.
No single action in the past 200 years has had a more radical impact on the economic structure of Thailand or, ironically, has done more to concentrate power into the central elite. Banks, owned by the elite (and in some cases creating new members of the elite), have replaced princes as the primary beneficiaries of agricultural systems of production.
It is an illusion that farmers own their land in actual fact, if (1) they must get government permission to sell or inherit it and cannot sell it to anyone who is not a full-fledged citizen, (2) they are dependent on water supplies controlled by the government, (3) they are unable to plant their crops without jeopardizing their titles to the land they farm (which they do when they borrow to purchase seed, fertilizer or chemicals), (4) they are unable to market their crops freely rather than through cartels controlled by the central elite at some point. It is worth remarking that the less one in the chain of production has to do with the produce, the greater will be the profits; the farmer typically derives less than 15% profit from the investment, whereas the agency that purchases the produce makes at least 50% on their investment, the bankers who capitalize the middle-men make as much as 90% on their investment (considering their expenses, not their interest rate), and the government has a clear profit on any taxes and payments made to permit the banks and shippers to operate.
To summarize the first two eras: the first was characterized by subsistence living in which everybody in the village took care of themselves and provided service to the patron, the prince, for the protection and security they enjoyed. The second era was characterized by the introduction of a money economy and the possibility of producing an excess of goods and services to provide for a level of living beyond subsistence. Utensils and equipment were no longer made by hand or made locally, but were purchased for money. Self-sufficiency came to an end.
The third era is the one unfolding before us. This era has certain features of great impact. (1) A middle class has expanded with someone in each farming family having a non-agricultural job, and each succeeding generation more dependent on salaried income. (2) The presumed dependability of salaries has had a positive effect on ability to secure credit and bank loans and to go into debt. (3) As the largest profits go to those highest in the agricultural chain of production, incentives to work at lower levels diminishes. (4) Village residency is no longer entirely hereditary, nor are village properties valued primarily as residences but also as ways to store wealth. (5) Citizenship and land titles have become possible for most communities living on the hills as has long been the case for those living in the valleys. (6) Means to do profitable hillside agriculture have become available as a result of leadership begun with Royal Projects. (7) As the younger generation moves into the salaried middle class their intention to remain in the village goes down. (8) As prosperity (including health and financial opportunities) increases, the average family size is reduced and the median age of village residents rises while traditional social security is weakened. (9) It becomes harder and harder to sustain village projects with local voluntary contributions of time and money. (10) To sustain local operations (including lanes, central water supplies, community organizations and village government) villages depend increasingly on outside support, usually from the central government, and village voices are unnecessary in decision-making.
All this because of land reform.
The only danger is that this economic system will collapse. It is not an imminent danger, I hope. But agricultural land values have escalated far beyond any possibility of agricultural returns on investments. For example, we have 2 rai (.8 acre) of rice land next to our house which we bought 10 years ago for 300,000 baht. Profits from each of 2 crops of rice a year is about 5000 baht. It doesn’t take a genius to see we will never live to see the land pay for itself through rice farming. But land values have risen in 10 years. We could sell the land, we think, for a 200% profit, which is greater than any other real commodity we could have bought (as distinguished from paper – stocks and bonds), including gold which has only risen 120% in that time. Just to be clear, the economic value of land in our village is exclusively what it will sell for. That is not conducive to social stability.
To summarize the third era: the village is no longer the source of individual or family well being. Almost all necessities are produced or manufactured away from the village and are purchased with money. Land is the basic collateral for securing most loans that potentially exceed future earnings, and all loans, theoretically at least, have land at risk behind them.
April 15, 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. This sesquicentennial is as good an excuse as any for considering one of the least known aspects of America’s best-known President, his intimate relationship with Joshua Speed. Although their five-year love affair has not gone without comment, it has probably never had as careful a review as that given in 2001 by Jonathan Ned Katz in Love Stories: Sex between Men Before Homosexuality. Most admissions of the sexual nature of Lincoln’s affection for Speed, beginning with Carl Sandburg’s classic biography of Lincoln in 1926 are marred by the attempt to view their love out of context. Sandburg was embarrassed by their relationship and obfuscated quite homophobically, “A streak of lavender ran through [them], [they] had spots soft as May violets.” In our own time authors put Speed and Lincoln into homosexual, heterosexual or bi-sexual pigeon holes.
This mistake, to pigeon-hole anachronistically, is routinely made in historical retrospectives. That, in fact, is what makes timely still another look at what it meant that Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed slept together beginning in 1837 and had a relationship, as Speed described it, in which “no two men were ever more intimate.” William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer said Lincoln “loved this man [Speed] more than anyone dead or living.”
What, exactly, went on between 28 year-old Lincoln and his 24 year-old friend? Katz expounds on it in analytical detail. In brief, Lincoln and Speed shared a bed, a very common arrangement in the 19th century. They shared acute anxiety over the prospects of any initial sexual encounter with a “good woman.” They collaborated on at least one liaison with a prostitute that Lincoln did not consummate, claiming (as was becoming a pattern for him) inadequate funds. They reveled in very easy fellowship with young men. Their separation was emotionally wrenching, especially for Lincoln who sought medical help and escape into work. Then, loaded with trepidation, as their correspondence documents, they separated and married good women they feared.
Modern thinking would conclude that maybe Lincoln and Speed had no sexual relationship at all; but on the other hand, failure on their part to recognize a sexual attraction hidden in their emotion-laden friendship did not mean their friendship did not have a sexual component. Again, Katz insists, that veers away from context. In the 19th century the separation of the physical from the spiritual was accepted as reality.
What we have to go on are surviving letters from Lincoln to Speed as they anticipated marriages they dreaded. In those letters Katz discerns several threads. Lincoln hoped that Speed would return to Springfield, and therefore to Lincoln. He hoped Speed would find happiness in his relationship with his fiancée but “our friendship is eternal.” He counseled Speed to be patient about the consummation of the marriage, since “Elysium” [Paradise] is unattainable in this life. Nevertheless, eventually sexual satisfaction is some compensation for the loss of a bachelor’s freedom and friendships. Later, Lincoln expresses joy that Speed is happier in his marriage than either of them expected him to be.
Altogether, Lincoln’s letters to Speed, corroborated by ample evidence from Herndon and others, show that Lincoln was in love with Joshua Speed. They had an emotional bonding that Lincoln never achieved with any other man or woman. This love in the Romantic era of the early-nineteenth century was the essence of a same-sex relationship in a way that a physical relationship involving genital contact could never have signified or amplified. At that time physical sex would have sullied and possibly destroyed such sublime love as Lincoln shared with Speed.
Was there an illicit, guilt or shame-inducing aspect to Lincoln’s love for Speed and Speed’s ardent responses? That, indeed, may be the measure that Katz disregards. We tend to believe that homo-erotic relationships were dreaded and stigmatized in the 19th century because same-sex incidents were vilified. Since there is no contemporary evidence of shame in Lincoln’s letters to Speed or in Herndon’s narrations a little later, we would conclude their relationship “must not have been homo-erotic.”
Instead, it is more likely that emotional love was not stigmatized in the 1830s as it was later with the development of the Victorian moral code and suspicion of all psychological states and any physical ones that were not chaste or devoid of emotion. When Abraham Lincoln loved Joshua Speed it was still OK for two men to love each other and to say so.
SONGKRAN is the traditional Thai New Year. To be precise, it is the date that Central Thai culture of Ayutthaya and Bangkok celebrated the New Year until the push came to show that Siam was part of the modern, civilized world, and New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. It is the only annual, traditional-religious celebration in Thailand aligned with the sun rather than the moon. It is April 13, expanded to April 13-15.
Culture tends to flow from centers of power to areas with less power, or diminishing power. So in Chiang Mai the old customs are either swept away or they are transformed and incorporated. Culture, along with its components such as language and religion, is always evolving. It is nostalgic nonsense to think otherwise. Here in the North Songkran includes several diverse background traditions including: (1) honoring elders, (2) being blessed by them, (3) washing Buddha images, (4) building sand chedis in temple grounds, (5) taking wooden props (mai kham ton Bo) to the Bo tree in the temple, (6) making merit for deceased ancestors, and incidental events a village might organize.
In Northern Thailand pouring water is still a ritual way of transferring blessings. It is part of every funeral and almost all other merit-making ceremonies. For Songkran the water includes an infusion of oils and dried flowers. Younger people honor the most senior members of their clan by taking small symbolic gifts to them, including a cloth item. They greet their elders with utmost respect, anoint the elder’s hands with the scented water which the elder transfers to his or her own head, and then returns the blessing by tying a white string around the younger person’s wrist while intoning a chanted wish for longevity, health, wealth, success and prosperity. Among persons of nearer the same age and status one could dare to pour a bit of water directly onto the other’s head or shoulder – which was bare in the old days, the custom of the times being “topless” or nearly so. The custom was reminiscent of giving the other person a bath, one of the most sacrosanct things a person could do.
Much of that remains in village culture.
For most of living memory, however, a second layer of tradition has been incorporated that comes from a different strand of tradition, the magical or sympathetic use of water to bring on rain. I am told that in times of extreme drought one of the rituals involved drenching a cat, whose cries would arouse a response from nature. More humanely, the ritual involved parading particular Buddha images (only certain ones) through the streets or pathways to allow people to anoint them with water, again to encourage rain to return. As it happened, once the parade has passed the people can happily anoint one another. If the crowd is younger or feeling more carefree the mutual anointing can become boisterous and resemble a water fight.
Now there is a third layer of tradition taking over in which most of the religious connotations are neglected or obscure. Songkran is now divided into two distinct festivals. The traditional one still involves trips to the temple and visits to elders. The other festival is all about playing with water.
An entire “industry” has built up around this water festival. The Tourism Authority of Thailand optimistically expects half a million tourists to arrive for a water fight. Here in Chiang Mai the battle will be around the city moat where streets will be clogged or entirely blocked fromnoon to dusk. Since venting aggression is an aspect of this, fueled with alcohol, the water throwing can be rowdy. As inhibitions are shed so can extraneous clothing. Tourists from overseas may not have any idea, nor care, about local mores and behavioral limits. It can be photogenic. The Culture Ministry has already produced a set of TV spots to express their indignation.
Meanwhile, thousands of people will be heading out of the city toward cleaner rivers to the South-West. The lucky ones will get to Ob Khan or Mae Wang in time to rent a little bamboo platform with a leaf roof and eat and drink their way through the day while children splash in the water. Those who get there later will find a shady spot to spread a mat on the ground and send the kids to join the crowd in the water.
If you think the 4 Gospel stories in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were biographies of Jesus, I invite you to reconsider. Nowhere it is clearer that historical accounting was not what the Gospel writers were intending than in the narratives about what we call Holy Week, the stories of Christ’s Passion, the Death and Resurrection stories.
Let’s just glance at the Easter details:
· In Matthew 2 women went to the tomb.
· In John Mary Magdalene went alone.
· Mark and Luke say there were 3, but they are not sure which 3.
· Did the women see 1 or 2 angels, or was it a man clothed in white?
· For Peter and John it was the deflated grave cloths that were convincing.
· And then they were not so convinced until they met Jesus while fishing.
· Mary was told not to touch the risen Lord.
· Thomas needed to touch, not just to see with his eyes.
The post resurrection appearances of Jesus were just as often confounding as they were confirming. Confusion was the most likely reaction.
Everybody who searches the Bible for historical accounts is frustrated by the gaps and even more by the inconsistencies. Critics of Christianity leap on this as our greatest weakness. In our seminary classrooms we sometimes wonder why the writers didn’t at leasttry to compile a coherent account. Just the other day a friend of a friend on the Internet confessed she was embarrassed by some of the impossibilities in the Holy Week accounts.
Somewhere along the line (I think it was in the 16th century) a search for historical accuracy became more urgent. We began to need a story that is internally coherent and consistent with whatever data may be uncovered by archeologists or recovered from long-lost documents. If the Jesus story is true, that’s how it is true, how we will know it is true, and how it will stay true: it will be history.
I know it is counter-cultural to suggest otherwise. But the Easter testament requires me to suggest we try to put ourselves into the mindset of the Easter witnesses. What were they witnessing and what were the New Testament writers testifying to?
It was not testimony to the historical truth that Jesus rose from the dead. Divine figures in every religion (especially the mystery cults that were hugely popular in the Roman Empire) and many other legendary heroes rose from the dead. Many of those resurrection accounts were more spectacular than the ones about Jesus. Factual accuracy about them was never what mattered. Even in Christian lore there were other resurrection stories including at least 2 told about Jesus, how he raised the son of the widow of Nain and the raising of Lazarus. The reaction at the time to “good news” that Jesus rose from the dead would have been along the lines, “Of course, he rose from the dead! Religious heroes do that.” Only in these last 500 years have we become skeptical about that, and think it must be the one thing that validates Christianity. I had a teacher who was fond of saying, “If Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity is a fraud.”
In the first century what mattered was “what difference does it make?” That was the religious question that needed answering if Christianity was to gain traction. Luke was quite clear that the reason he compiled his testament to the Good News was to explain why the Jewish people beginning to be called Christians had grown to be so many and so enthusiastic. Luke and the other Gospel writers gathered story after story about what happened when people allowed Christ to meet their deep needs. The Easter stories (as well as the other Gospel stories) are accounts of how Christ changed people.
Mary Magdalene experienced Jesus as the one who resolved her grief. The thing that threatened to overwhelm Mary was her grief at the death of Jesus, whom she loved. So, for Mary Magdalene, the Easter experience was the eradication of her grief.
For Thomas, the experience was quite different. Thomas experienced Jesus as the one who resolved his doubt. He was not going to believe any of the gossip about Jesus, he declared, until he had actually touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear wound in his side. Thomas would doubt until he had physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and so Jesus provided him proof.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced Jesus as the one who unfolded scripture for them. They were determined to believe what they read in scripture, and as they walked along, Jesus expounded on scripture, verse by verse. How their hearts were warmed, they said, until at length they recognized him as they were breaking bread together.
Other disciples experienced Jesus as the one who resolved their purposelessness. Now that Jesus was gone what was there to do? They had invested their lives in this man for three years and now he was dead. They were without purpose until, at last, Jesus, meeting them in an Easter experience custom-made for them, gave them a new role to undertake.
Peter experienced Jesus as the one who resolved his guilt. He had denied Jesus. He had said he would not deny Jesus to his last breath and until the last drop of blood. Yet he had denied him three times without loss of either breath or blood. Peter was overwhelmed with guilt. When Peter met the risen Lord his Easter experience convinced him he was forgiven his miserable showing, and that Jesus still wanted Peter to serve him.
This is the Easter experience as the witnesses testified to it: the ones who were grief stricken experienced Easter at the tomb. The ones who were terror stricken experienced the resurrection in their locked upper room. The two who were stricken by loneliness experienced Jesus at the dinner table, and those who were adrift experienced Jesus beside their fishing nets in Galilee.
The Easter experience is the experience of God’s victory which resolves our defeats.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.