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Topoonyanont, Wasinee Sutiwipakorn (2023) Nature, Nurture and Nation in Folk Oralities in Thailand and Beyond. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This thesis examines the interrelationships between humans and Nature1 as represented in the Thai folk oralities - from folk lullabies to rural belief systems. This includes a consideration of the portrayals of the archaic female guardian spirit (Mae Sue), the folk narratives in the Rathasena Jataka, and the legend of Jao Mae Nang Non (the Great Reclining Lady) of Chiang Rai province. These conceptual materials have represented the relationships between humans and the natural environment in alignment with human emotions and beliefs in more-than-human entities. The study adopts an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on theoretical insights derived from socio-ecology, political ecology, feminist political ecology, intertextuality, colonial discourses, and religious hybridity. It interrogates cultural deep history in relation to the natural environment and spiritual beliefs and practices connected with Nature, as portrayed in the dayto- day lives of rural people and their oralities. It further examines the ways in which these cultural-natural histories and local peoples’ practices come under the control of Siamese/Thai patriotic epistemologies in the making of the modern nation-state. The study begins by scrutinising the practice of Siamese/Thai hegemony since the late era of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (the eighteenth century) to the early Rattanakosin period (where dominance of grand narrative becomes rigorous during the reign of King Rama V, 1868-1910). The research questions revolve around issues of how environmental politics has created a rift with rural-based traditions; how the nation-state usurps eco-space, both literally and figuratively (in the case of oral literatures); and how nationalistic narratives have exploited rural voices through reinterpretations of folk oralities. The main research methodology focuses on political ecology, intertextual analysis, and colonial discourses, in combination with in-depth interviews of 64 individuals with Thais, with ethnic minorities, with the southern forestdwelling nomadic tribe (maniq), and with Lao people, all of which were undertaken during fieldwork from October 2019 – March 2020. To demonstrate national disruptions to the rural people’s lifestyles and their oralities, the opening chapter foregrounds the socio-ecological dimensions portrayed in regional folk lullabies where surrounding Nature – including both the positive and negative characteristics of Nature - thrives alongside human communities. Within the nature-oriented traditions represented in regional rhymes, the environmental politics of the Thai state reveal the intricate processes of Cultural-Natural intervention. The study further explores the link between matriarchy and nature-based embodiment as represented through female guardian spirits such as Mae Sue in lullabies and the perceptions of the Mother Nature. Here, the re-articulations of female spirits by Siamese/Thai scholars manifest the extent to which the central elites have imposed a coupling of femininity and the natural sphere, in the same way they have imposed a distinction between Cultural and Natural. The attempt to define the uniformity of national identity has resulted in the marginalisation of rural peoples’ cultural heterogeneity and has served to push eco-space into the background of the narratives, as is shown in central lullabies. Furthermore, the breach between humans and Nature has grown more intensely fraught, as seen in a case of Phra Rot Meri story in the Rathasena Jataka. By endorsing an intertextual analytical approach towards the Rathasena Jataka, this thesis uncovers the conflicts that exist between the central and the peripheral people in each transformation of the narratives. Within the aesthetic in each version of the Rathasena story, Nature is closely associated with the insurgency and violence that the state has inflicted on humans and nonhuman others. In light of these core vs periphery controversies, however, the case study of the tale of the sacred mountain of Jao Mae Nang Non reveals how the natural environment becomes a “contested terrain” of negotiation where rural people and Tai Yai ethnic people from the Shan states in Myanmar, who have migrated to the northernmost regions of Chiang Rai province, have redefined their cultural identity in relation to spiritual beliefs and practices towards the mountain. In place of considering folk oralities from a merely aesthetic perspective, as has been the norm in previous Thai literary studies, this thesis proposes a re-examination of their relationships to national and local identities, arguing for the significance of their contested terrain through environmental politics and ecological literary lenses. Folk lullabies and folk narratives do not solely express a harmonious cultural relationship with Nature in which trees, rocks, rivers, and caves, are represented inanimately. Rather, the natural space in Thai folk literature displays a rich diversity in terms of its spiritualistic dimensions, its features of insurgency, and of violence between the nation-state and the local people, the latter always seen as being unorthodox and on a par with untamed Nature. A core feature in the modernised nation-making process is one of taking control over the cultural beliefs and practices of local people and their relations to the wilderness. Instead of regarding culture as static, this study opens up new perspectives on understanding culture in the spheres of fluidity and hybridity. The realisation of how eco-space has been distorted and destroyed by the intervention of the state also has implications for future environmental consciousness as a result of which the natural environment might be made more secure.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Rachel Harrison and Mulaika Hijjas
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 11 Jul 2023 15:39
Funders: Other

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