May 8, 2017 2:00 pm JST

Village reflects Thailand's social changes in last 50 years

Northeastern hamlet a stark illustration of the effects of modernity on community values

DENIS D. GRAY, Contributing writer

William Klausner came to the Thai northeastern village of Nong Khon as an adventurous young anthropologist in 1955 and worked alongside the villagers. (Courtesy of William Klausner)

NONG KHON, Thailand -- When William Klausner came to spend a year at Nong Khon village as an adventurous young anthropologist in 1955, the residents owned no watches, lamps or refrigerators and only one radio among them. Four years of education at most was available to their children, and adults rarely ventured beyond their rice fields into a world of which they were virtually ignorant. This northeastern Thailand village typified a closely knit, inward-looking rural community.

Today, nearly 60 years after the American researcher began his year-long stay, every household owns a motorcycle if not a pick-up truck, mobile phones are ubiquitous ("only grandmothers don't have them," villagers say) and parents often find their children hanging out at three video parlors. In other signs of changing times, the village now boasts convenience stores, automatic teller machines and a pizza delivery service. Almost all the area's working-age young, some of them university graduates, have shunned life as farmers in favor of pursuing jobs in Bangkok or other cities.

In conversations with visitors, villagers show they are keenly aware of political developments in the country, often in real time, through a spectrum of different media.

"Shadows of the past still exist, but there is a new game in town. The village is morphing into a semi-urban community with all its negative and positive aspects," said Klausner, who married a woman from the village and went on to develop a prominent career as a writer and expert on Thai culture and an executive at leading nonprofit foundations.

The dramatic transformation of Nong Khon, which means "Log Pond village," mirrors developments across the country's extensive Isan, or northeast, region that have had an impact on the greater Thai social and political scene. Although it remains Thailand's poorest, some say most "backward," the changes have narrowed somewhat its once yawning chasm with Bangkok. At the same time, such shifts have also sparked antipathy to the pampered capital and its powerful elite as mobility, economic aspirations and political awareness grow among the "people of the soil."

Complicating the urban-rural relationship is that many Bangkokians regard those from northeastern villages as uneducated, narrow-minded provincials, referring disparagingly to them as "buffaloes," although many of them are now members of the capital's white-collar workforce, holding jobs in professional fields such as banking or nursing.

The so-called "Red Shirt" movement that supported the populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was largely spawned in the northeast, reflecting anger and frustration against the powerbrokers in Bangkok, and led to protesters occupying parts of the capital in 2010 before it was bloodily suppressed by the army.

Many in the northeast, including those at Log Pond, are no longer the docile folk that Klausner knew, quietly bowing to authority, and are also less willing to sacrifice their personal rights and ambitions in favor of family, neighbors and community.

Lost community spirit

"When there was rice planting, people would get together to help each other. They depended on each other, but that's not there anymore because we have mechanical devices. Today there is no feeling that you have to work together to survive," said Thatsanai Chainaen, the elementary school principal. In the past, people cooked food to share with others whereas "now you go out and buy it at a 7-Eleven," he said.

In the leafy, sprawling compound of the village's main temple, or wat, Luang Pu Wong, an 80-year-old abbot who has actively helped promote community development over the years, said: "Despite being poor, what we had was a common spirit. We were slow in progress but strong in unity."

Other village leaders also waxed nostalgic in interviews with the Nikkei Asian Review, but they did not cling to any vision of an idealized past -- nor a shining present and future.

They recalled some of the downsides of earlier days: the sheer poverty and back-breaking labor, meager education and lack of family planning, poor nutrition, shorter lives and illnesses that ended in death because people feared going to hospitals, regarded as places where people died and were thus full of ghosts.

But neither was there an exodus of the young, lawsuits and generational conflicts and the debt that afflicts some 80% of today's villagers. Theft was virtually unknown while gambling and heavy drinking, now pervasive, was largely restricted to certain festivals. Between neighbors and passers-by, there were no walls or fences, a recent fixture in Nong Khon.

When Klausner first arrived, 136 households were clustered together and living in stilt-propped houses mostly made of bamboo and thatch, although homes of the more affluent villagers were built of wood and topped by a tin roof. Families worked together in the fields, bartered rather than relied on money, and gathered around the fire at night to gossip and tell folk tales. "Now you sit around the TV, and kids aren't interested in their grandmother's stories and traditions because they have smartphones," Klausner said.

Lazy dogs may still snooze on the road, chickens run around and gentle breezes stir the bamboo groves, but Nong Khon, which is 16km from the capital of Ubon province, now hosts half a dozen convenience stores. And near the entrance to the village, the Happy Coffee shop, an open-air cafe bar which opened last year, serves excellent espresso and "Scandinavian latte" to its teenager crowd. Nearby is an automated teller machine that allows villagers to draw cash, pay bills and browse the internet.

Death of tradition

The village elders foresee the demise of their rural ways. "When we are gone the younger generation will sell their land and move elsewhere. We are happy and proud of what we now do but after us who knows?" said Khamphan Waenkhwaen, a former school teacher.

"Wherever we go, urbanization and technology chase us. Before everything had to do with nature and we had to fight hard. Now people are not so strong," said another village leader.

Change was first introduced in the 1970s when electricity allowed the use of labor-saving devices and supported a cash economy to replace barter. The result was consumerism that undermined mutual dependence and promoted the desires and aspirations of the individual. Conflict was once resolved through compromise and conciliation by village elders, but that process has since been replaced by confrontation in common legal disputes over land, water access and inheritance.

The realms of religion and the spirit have also been affected. Although villagers still frequently consult a Brahmin, a shaman and three fortune tellers who live in Nong Khon for divine favors or guidance in making decisions, there is no longer any belief that droughts, epidemics and other catastrophes are the result of improper behavior against the spirits and other human beings. A means to control anti-social behavior has been lost, said Klausner.

There are fewer Buddhist monks and they no longer exercise the influence they wielded when they were the best educated people in the region. The monastery that Klausner used to visit housed 20 monks and half a dozen novices. Today, only three monks and no novices live there. Many young men would enter the monkhood for three months during the rainy season as a rite of passage. Now, one week is more likely the norm.

Luang Pu Wong, who was born in the village and has been a monk since he was 20, has lost many of his social roles as agricultural adviser, teacher, judge, promoter of canals, roads and electricity, and mediator between the villagers and the government. With the arrival of officials and development experts, his duties are now mainly confined to religious practices and struggles to keep people on an ethical path.

"We have descended into the pits," he lamented, explaining that some villagers even drink and gamble on monastery grounds during holy days, something unthinkable in the past. "If we don't allow them to drink they won't come," he added.

Political disdain

At a picnic lunch in a grove of trees adjoining the rice fields, a group of village elders and municipal officials expressed interest in politics, but also referred to politicians as "trash." This aversion to politicians has been echoed at higher levels in the military junta that took power in May 2014. The coup ended Thailand's recent cycle of political turbulence, but has fueled calls in many circles for the restoration of elections.

The village elders of Nong Khon are in no hurry. "Governments in Bangkok come and go but things we need don't happen. Some national policies are good but not always good for local people," said the school principal Thatsanai. The authorities, for example, want to develop an underground water system, which is not a priority, whereas much needed canal irrigation has still not arrived, he noted. The school curriculum is devised by officials in Bangkok who are unaware of local needs, he added.

Indeed, economic disparities between the capital and rural areas such as Nong Khon remain wide: Gross domestic product per capita in Bangkok stood at $15,200 as compared with $2,400 in the northeastern provinces in 2013, according to the latest official data.

Somphorn Labaap is the village shaman and caretaker of the ancestral spirit shrine where twice a year, all gather for ceremonies at which chickens are sacrificed and eaten. When asked whether Nong Khon's people were happier then or now, he replied: "It's an artificial happiness. It only lasts one night," referring to life today. "We are no longer a big, extended, warm family."

Gwen Robinson, chief editor of the Nikkei Asian Review, contributed to this article.

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