ANFEP 2015: Thailand

ASIANetwork Faculty Enhancement Program (ANFEP)
Deepening Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts
Seminars in Asia

“Thailand: Power, Land, and Belief in a Divided Society”

Thursday, June 11 – Thursday, July 2, 2015


Dr. Robert Dayley, Political Economy, The College of Idaho
Dr. Bonnie Brereton, Art History, Independent Scholar, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Fellows in the summer 2015 Thailand Seminar will study past and present interrelations between power, land, and belief in the country’s predominantly Buddhist society. The seminar provides insight into Thailand’s rich history and culture with an eye on explaining the sources of political cleavage that divide its political society today.

2015 Thailand Seminar: Program Details

The 2015 Thailand seminar explores the ancient and modern capitals of the Chao Phraya River Basin (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok), the northern borderlands of the Golden Triangle (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen), and select rural communities of the Isan, or Northeast (Ubon Ratchathani and Sisaket). The seminar considers historical developments from early Tai and Siamese states to the Chakri Dynasty’s response to European encroachment. It examines the demise of the absolute monarchy in 1932 and the cycles of civilian and military rule that have defined political life since. Of equal curiosity in the seminar are the country’s rapid economic development and struggles with globalization and electoral democracy. We follow three core themes to connect past and present.

Power: We first consider the formation and exercise of power under absolute monarchy, military dictatorship, and parliamentary governance –from Tai muang and Buddhist mandala in the past to Thailand’s current constitutional monarchy and democratic failures. In Thailand, the past still weighs heavily on contemporary struggles over basic law and constitutionalism. Hindu and Theravada Buddhist concepts of power and authority, for example, resonate even as they confront modern ideals of representative government and civil liberties.

Land: We also consider Thailand as an agrarian frontier society. The connection between people and land over time has influenced identity formation in Thailand’s rural and urban societies. With the frontier now exhausted, land use controversies lie at the heart of today’s policy debates, questions about social justice, and threats to the environment. As both a physical commodity and a socially constructed value, land remains a key contested resource and cultural symbol. The seminar thus focuses on the narratives and structures that connect people, power, and land in the forming of political values, identities, and Thai nationhood itself, past and present.

Belief: Lastly, we keep attention throughout the seminar on belief, ritual, and religion in Thai society. Sourced from many influences, Thai Buddhism is expressed in diverse forms. We survey everyday practices, the mainstream Sangha, socially-engaged monks, Buddhist fundamentalists, and new practices gaining popularity in urban areas. The seminar includes interaction with local and foreign religious experts and Buddhist practitioners.

Travel Expectations:

The Thailand 2015 Seminar begins in Chiang Mai, an enchanting walled city of the bygone Lanna Kingdom. The city is home to over 300 Thai wat and hosted the World Buddhist Council in 1477. After a week of exploring the North and the Golden Triangle region we head to the ancient capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya in Central Thailand. Following a visit to Bangkok we then travel for our third week to the Isan (Northeast) to explore rural Ubon Ratchathani and Sisaket. Our final reflections on how power, land, and belief shape Thailand takes place at Preah Vihear, the disputed Angkor era temple situated on a cliff near the Thai-Cambodian border. Throughout the seminar participants can expect a variety of experiences designed to engage them with Thailand and its people. In addition to “must-sees” such as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, The Grand Palace, and Wat Doi Suthep, we will spend time with experts, NGOs, monks, and others, including homestays in a rural village and Buddhist commune. Accommodations will range from full-service hotels and boutique guest houses to dorm bunks and floor mats. Transportation will include train travel, buses, mini-vans, water taxis, tuk-tuks (motorized trishaw), bicycles, and plenty of walking. The tour will be physically demanding with frequent outdoor activity in heat and humidity. We will be constantly on the move. Participants should prepare for short treks to mountain temples, upland villages, cave shrines, and waterfalls. Throughout the experience the food will be fantastic!

2015 Participants

Marlo Belschner
Professor and Chair
Department of English
Monmouth College

My research is focused on “Women, Buddhism, and Religious Feminism in Thailand.”
I’m interested in the ambiguous role of the Mae Chis and the Bhikkhuni revolution within Theravada Buddhism in Thailand. While this can be a controversial topic that requires cultural sensitivity, my hope is to hear more from or about the few women in Thailand who have been ordained as Bhikkhuni (largely in Sri Lanka). My current work is on Mary Ward, an early modern Englishwoman who founded a non-cloistered order, the Congregatio Jesu, and religious feminism is central to my interest. Not only am I eager to learn more about the role of religion in Thai women’s self-image and independence but I have found that studying the issue from other cultures’ perspectives has led to interesting and creative insights in my own work especially from a theoretical angle. Both the Mae Chis and the Bhikkhuni are deeply engaged in important feminist as well as Buddhist work. Although they are more peripheral, I hope to learn about the Santi Asoke Buddhists and the sikkhamat ordained within the Asoke group as that would provide a stronger sense of the role of women in Thai Buddhism. I look forward to the opportunity to learn about women’s involvement in the religious and sociopolitical life of Thailand.

Sophia Geng (Geng Zhihui)
Associate Professor of Chinese
College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University

The topic of my research is contemporary Thai literature. Research during and in the wake of the ANFDP Thailand Seminar will examine Thai literature in the light of an important component of Asian and world literary traditions and an emphasis of the research will be Thai literature’s interactions with Asian literature more generally and its contributions to world literature as well. There are some important issues that the research project will explore: First, whether traditional literary forms such as folklore, scripture stories still serve as relative venues for cultural dissemination and moral education? Secondly, how Thai literature echoes, reflects, interprets and analyzes social developments, tensions and conflicts, from both individual and group perspectives? For instance, Thailand is a country composed of multiple ethnic groups and infused by many cultures. How is the identity of Thai people formed? How is the search and confirmation of identity manifested in Thai literature? How do immigration policies and the level of societal tolerance towards new immigrants affect the production of immigration literature? Thirdly, how does Thai literature join its neighboring literary traditions in Southeast Asia and the larger Asian literature in in response to world-wide themes such as globalization, orientalism and neo-colonialism? This research will be incorporated into my new upper-division course on Asian literature.

Brandon Inabinet
Assistant Professor & Forensics Director
Communication Studies
Furman University

Combining Thai civility policies, protest rallies, royal speech, and political social media circulation, my project “Thai Incivility and Repressive Appropriateness” builds a comparative system to Hellenic rhetorical theories of appropriateness. As taught in U.S. classrooms today, the Greek tradition emphasizes prudent, situation-attuned speech. Written texts are preferred, short-term goals of communicators dominate, and genres and topics are geared toward rational and responsive institutions of governance. Sporadic, radical innovations to the contrary are read appreciatively, though, with skepticism of free-speech-silencing “civility” talk.

Thai rhetorical practice, from this perspective, looks odd or even corrupted. Democratic unrest, whether inanely cute or devastatingly bloody, flashes up in Thailand, answered with bouts of repressive (though security-providing) speech policies. By conducting local interviews and conversations, I will incorporate not just a history and theorization of speech-policing terms that constitute and discipline appropriate discourse (riap roi, marayat, suphap, chung chai, kharom, wohan, araya), but also integrate oral histories of how those terms get applied in practice. In so doing, my hope is that Thai’s complex belief systems can be better understood as manifestations of an episodic democratic-authoritarian spectrum of political practices.

Such a project informs not only rhetorical theory for the field of Communication Studies, but also contributes to pedagogy in courses I teach such as Argumentation, Introduction to Rhetoric, Advocacy, and Rhetoric of Emerging Democracies, as well as our Asian Studies curriculum at Furman University.

Magdalena Krajewska
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Department of History and Political Science
Wingate University

I am excited that the seminar will cover a wide variety of topics relating to Thailand, including politics, history, the economy, and culture. I am particularly interested in learning about Thai politics and history. I am also interested in learning about Thailand’s rapid economic development in the late 1980s and early 1990s, followed by the financial struggles it later faced.

While my primary focus in attending the seminar is to gain knowledge that will benefit my teaching, I would also like to enhance my research on national ID cards. I am currently working on a book that examines the politics and history of proposals to introduce national ID cards in the United Kingdom and the United States, from the 1915 to the present.

While the focus of my research is on the UK and the US, I am interested in developments relating to identification documents, identification policies, citizenship, immigration, and homeland security throughout the world. It will be beneficial for me to learn about Thailand’s recently rolled-out national ID card project. Since I have expertise on identification documents in general, but know little about the Thai project, learning more about it will be very helpful. I will then incorporate this knowledge into my writing.

Jeremy Rinker
Visiting Assistant Professor & Chair
Peace and Conflict Studies Department
Affiliated Faculty Religious Studies
Director of the Conflict Resolution Resource Center (CRRC)
Guilford College

I am very interested in the topic “Buddhist Development and Philanthropy.” There are really two interrelated ideas that this project will simultaneously explore: the way Buddhism has uniquely developed in Thailand and the way Buddhist circuits of philanthropy have emerged from this unique development of Thai Buddhism to raise and distribute funds for social uplift and change. Invoking the dual meaning of Buddhist development the project aims to explore the modern realities of Buddhist development circles (circuits?) and the more ancient development of Buddhism and particular Thai interactions with antecedent Hindu thought and culture. Related to both an on-going project aimed at mapping transnational Buddhist development networks and a class on Hinduism I plan to teach in 2016, the project will explore the complex interconnections between modern global and transnational networks of progressive philanthropy and Indic religious roots and values as they relate to these networks. Some of the questions I hope to explore and refine are: How is Thai Buddhism a unique cultural and political interpretation of early Theravadan beliefs and practices? How does Hindu belief and ritual impact Thai Buddhism? How do Dharmic beliefs and practices collide with Thai culture to define the meanings of giving and merit? What role do stories and storytelling play in understanding engaged Buddhist development?

Marieta Velikova
Associate Professor of International Economics
Belmont University

My goal is to conduct field research to gain deeper understanding of economic, political, social and cultural factors of Thailand as an emerging market and growing economy within political, social and cultural constraints. I intend to compare business environment and macroeconomic variables such as GDP growth rates, GDP per capita, economic freedom ranking, globalization index, ease of doing business ranking with political, social and cultural variables such as social progress index, human development index, political freedom ranking, Gallup Poll constructed index measuring community and purpose of living variables. Moreover, I will seek to understand how Thailand positions itself politically and economically in the region where we have strong players including Japan, Singapore and South Korea, and new rising powers including China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia. I will also observe how globalization of Thailand due to economic growth and development affects every day lives of ordinary people.

Patricia Welch
Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature
Hofstra University

In a famous Japanese literary work, Genji chides his adopted daughter for foolishly reading literature. While he first believes her habit is frivolous, he comes around in the face of her impassioned argument, finally seeing literature as having utility in the ways that it helps readers see and understand their worlds. Needless to say, Thai literature has its own special characteristics, but like all literature can be instructive even as it entertains. The messages may be explicit (consider Buddhist parables or other explicitly didactic texts), but are more often concealed, perhaps even to the writers themselves. Literary texts convey meaning—not cold, hard facts, perhaps—but the “truth” of the world, as it lived, and can serve both as a repository of cultural memory or a source for cultural change. As readers, we put ourselves in the positions of characters, and understand the “truths” of fictional worlds. Literature also serves as a cultural bridge, allowing us insight into other worlds, while helping us to understand ourselves.

I will approach my time in Thailand as part of the ANFEP seminar as a kind of amazing cultural boot camp, an intense immersion in Thai history and culture, through the seminar’s linked themes of power, land and belief in a divided world. My concrete experiences as part of this program and through my readings in literature, history and culture will work synergistically in helping me towards greater understanding of the people and culture of Thailand and guide me in my concrete goals of courses on Thai literature and culture for Hofstra University. Finally, as time permits, I would love to use the trip as an opportunity to learn more about the Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries, a cosmopolitan city and home to a small community of Japanese traders and Christians, as part of fledgling research project.

Vikash Yadav
Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Executive Editor, Asian Affairs: An American Review

My overall research seeks to understand the ways in which pre- and post-Westphalian conceptualizations of sovereign state authority have functioned and mutated in the areas of what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The Thailand seminar’s thematic focus on the relationship between land, power, and belief will help me to broaden and sharpen my theoretical conceptualizations which are currently drawn from South Asian history and political theory. On the one hand, my project is focused on the manifold materializations of sovereign power and the relationship between territory and sovereign authority structures prior to the European encounter in South Asia. On the other hand, the project examines the often fictive, porous, and fractured authority structures of contemporary states in South Asia and their inability to generate self-disciplined and docile subjects.

Rizwan Zamir
Assistant Professor of Religion
Davidson College

The ANFEP Thailand Seminar coincides with the beginning of my full year sabbatical leave from Davidson College. My interest in it is rooted in the hope of exploring new ideas and cultures during this year, and in my enduring interest in comparative study of religious ideas and cultures. In Thailand, I hope to explore: Buddhist religious ideas, history, practices and material culture (both monastic and popular, and interactions between the two); religious art and architecture and their relationship to Buddhist thought; Buddhist-Muslim communal relations; and the impact of political, economic, social and cultural modernity on traditional values, tastes, institutions and cultural life. Relating it all to pedagogy I must note that study and teaching of Islam in the United States is deeply entrenched and informed by wider concerns about Muslim world’s image and relationship with the West. Not only is this framework limiting because it fails to encompass centuries of Muslim interactions and presence in non-western lands, it also forces the study of Islam as a religious tradition to be almost always juxtaposed and compared to the Judeo-Christian (mostly Christian) background. Due to various factors this homogeneity of the audience can no longer be assumed: My audience (students and the wider public) are aware of, and even participate in aspects of Asian religions and culture. In this growing diversity within the classroom, there is much in stake in my ability to translate the Islamic tradition for my diverse audience. I see my visit to Thailand an important step in addressing some of these issues.

ASIANetwork Faculty Enhancement Program Director
Ronnie Littlejohn, Belmont University 615-460-6494;

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation granting mission is to strengthen and sustain institutions and their core capacities, rather than be a source for narrowly defined projects. As such, they develop thoughtful, long-term collaborations with grant recipients and invest sufficient funds for an extended period to accomplish the purpose at hand and achieve meaningful results.

ASIANetwork, a consortium of approximately 150 North American colleges, strives to strengthen the role of Asian Studies within the framework of liberal arts education to help prepare succeeding generations of undergraduates for a world in which Asian societies play prominent roles.