Dr Irving C Johnson’s ethnographic project “The People with Two Kings” is an account of identity, space and history in the little known Buddhist communities of Kelantan, Malaysia. Long associated with Islam and traditional Malay culture, scholars of Kelantanese society have often overlooked the presence of the state’s nearly ten thousand Thais. Erroneously labeled Siamese by some, Kelantan’s Thai Buddhist population live in primarily ethnically homogenous villages. Having abandoned wet rice cultivation since the seventies, many Thais now practice intensive vegetable and tobacco cultivation. Kelantan’s low levels of socio-economic development have meant that many younger Thais have been forced to move outside the state to seek waged employment. Many have migrated to the urban belts of Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The large economic rewards to be gained from cash cropping and urban employment coupled with a vibrant national economy is clearly displayed in the village landscape. Gated concrete mansions have replaced many older wooden houses, and the internet and wireless broadband have found its way into distant villages. Dirt tracks have been transformed into paved roads and villagers have become part of moving landscapes marked by cars, bicycles, motorcycles, budget airfares and media images. Yet despite the influx of modernity into these villages, vestiges of history remain, in particular through the mobile culture of village life.
Living so close to Thailand (the Thai border towns of Sungai Golok and Tak Bai being only a short drive from some villages) has meant that Kelantan’s Thai population has been strongly influenced by people and events that take place across the border. In 1909, British and Siamese officials demarcated Kelantan’s northernmost frontier from an independent Siam. Nevertheless, the new divide did little to prevent cross-border movements. Kelantan’s Thai villagers have historically traveled between Malaysia and Thailand on a regular basis. Before the British and subsequent Malaysian administration’s construction of road and rail networks, Kelantanese Thai traveled shorter distances – often moving between villages. Today, new forms of mobility have forced Kelantanese Thais to rethink the meaning of travel and its impact on their lives. In his project, Dr Johnson addresses the relationship between traditional forms of mobility and contemporary cross border flows and the effect this has had on the way Kelantanese Thai speak about and perform their identity.
The mobilities inherent in travel circuits that define the space of Kelantan’s borderland villages often blur the meanings of identity for the people who engage with these movements. One result of this has been the constant attempts by representatives of certain cultural bodies to effectively “standardize” Kelantanese Thai culture (art, architecture, language, bodily stance, etc) so that it mirrors Thailand’s self definitions of what Thai culture is. But these practices are often part of larger national processes that emanate from faraway metropolitan centers. Besides the physical movement of people, Kelantanese Thai villages are saturated with media images emanating from both Thailand and Malaysia. Dr Johnson’s work documents the impact of these grandiose nationalism projects on the lives of the Malaysian Buddhist villagers. He shows how the stereotypes associated with national projects of cultural and political citizenship are interpreted in a myriad of ways by the people. Through their engagement with these projects of cultural standardization, Kelantanese Thais reaffirm their multilayered identities as Thai, Buddhist, Kelantanese and Malaysian. By living in one Kelantanese Thai village for 16 months and participating in the lives of the people, Dr Johnson displays the creative genius of people often considered marginal and powerless. He achieves this through tracing the trajectory of their lives and in listening to the way they talk about it. Cultural creativity, Dr Johnson argues, is intimately woven in the everyday practices of the people and in the way they speak about the world they live in and of the past they remember. These practices are defined by space and the historical and contemporary movements that crisscross them.
Dr Johnson's working paper on the Kelantanese Thai society can be found at here.
Other websites relevant to Kelantanese Thai society can be found at:
Some pictures of Kelantan:
Some publications as a result of this research are:
Johnson, I. C. (2004) The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on Protestant Buddhism IN Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences. 27(1 and 2). Pp.61-105s
Johnson, I. C. (1999) Seductive Mediators: The Nuuraa Performer’s Ritual Persona as a Love Magician in Kelantanese Thai Society IN Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 30(2). Pp. 286-309.
Johnson, I. C. (2005) Paradise AT Your Doorstep: International Border Fluidity and Cultural Construction Amongst Kelantan’s Thai Community IN Dynamic Diversity in Southern Thailand, Wattana Sugunnasil (ed.). Bangkok: Silkworm.