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80 A Muslim King and His Buddhist Subjects: Religion, Power, and Identity at the Periphery of the Thai State Irving Chan Johnson In this paper, I explore how Thai villagers living in the Malaysian state of Kelantan creatively fashion cultural meanings for themselves by navigating through the conundrum of being the subject of two rulers—one Buddhist, but living in Thailand across the international border, the other Muslim, and part of the lived experiences of Kelantan ’s Thai residents. Seated on the throne in Bangkok is an idealized Buddhist monarch whose popular cult is based largely on media representations (pictures, books, news reports) and on an imagined sense of cultural citizenry rather than on historical associations.1 Closer to home is the Muslim sultan who, despite being of a different ethnic and religious group, shares an intimate and historical bond with his Thai subjects through his symbolic patronage of the Kelantanese Buddhist establishment. Through an ethnographic discussion of the cult of royal power in a small Malaysian border village, I show how agency and history is produced and toyed with in the way men and women living along an international border reflect on issues of personhood and identity. F5920.indb 80 F5920.indb 80 12/17/12 3:00:39 PM 12/17/12 3:00:39 PM Religion, Power, and Identity and the Thai State 81 Located in the northeastern-most peninsular Malaysian state of Kelantan, Baan Phra Suung is a twenty-minute drive from the Thai border. The village of one hundred and twenty-five households is one of eighteen Thai Buddhist settlements in the predominantly Muslim Malay state. No one knows when Thais first settled in the area. “We have always been living here,” was a refrain I heard time and again when I tried to enquire into the history of Thai settlement in the area. This was often followed by attempts to justify a historic Thai presence in the Muslim state—villagers spoke of ancient temple ruins no longer visible and of ancestral migrations from far-away places such as Sukhothai and Laos. Yet when these movements occurred no one knew, or even seemed to care. What was important was the present, and the fact that these Kelantan Thais live side-by-side with Malay Muslims in a contemporary Malaysia. Despite being a demographic and cultural minority, Kelantan’s nine thousand Thai Buddhists residents—accounting for no more than one percent of the state’s total population—are very much a visible community. Many village temples have appeared in guide books and tourist brochures advertising Malaysia’s northern frontier. Kelantan’s ubiquitous Thai temples are home to massive statues. The longest Reclining Buddha in Southeast Asia and the thirty-meters-tall Sitting Buddha at Wat Klaang have placed Kelantan’s Thai community in the public gaze. Along the pot-holed thoroughfares that slice through Thai villages travel boisterous Buddhist ordination parades as well as the plethora of pilgrims, tourists, kings, monks, smugglers, farmers, government officials, policemen, and others who navigate across older circuits of movement within the state, linking it with Thailand to the north and across the Malay Peninsula to the south. Baan Phra Suung’s residents are active participants in global flows of communication.Village houses, whether traditional constructions of wood with zinc roofs or modern mansions of concrete and marble, have one or more large televisions on which residents watch a continuous stream of Thai and Malaysian programs. These range from hugely popular Korean soaps and Thai romantic serials to news features and Hollywood blockbusters. Many households also own personal computers. The installation of telephone cabling in the village allows technologically savvy village youth to surf the Web, chat with friends in cyberspace, and check personal e-mail accounts. By 2012 many villagers possessed cellphones, and their community appears F5920.indb 81 F5920.indb 81 12/17/12 3:00:39 PM 12/17/12 3:00:39 PM 82 Irving Chan Johnson on Facebook pages.Temple ceremonies are filmed with smart phones, and their moving images have been uploaded onto a number of Youtube channels. Between 2001 and 2002 I lived in Wat Nai, one of two Buddhist temples in the village. Not having a computer with me, I relied on the temple’s computers to check my e-mail and do word processing. One day I noticed that one of the computer screens was wallpapered with tiled images of Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, wife of King Bhumibol Aduyadej...


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