Phantom Scandal: On the National Uses of the “Thailand Controversy”
- Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 29, Number 2, July 2014
- pp. 263-299
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The episode known as the “Thailand Controversy” centred on claims that, during the Vietnam War, American anthropologists in Thailand had been collaborating with U.S. and Thai military interests and in ways that harmed social life and efforts towards equality and justice in that country. Reflection and comparison suggest that the allegations of impropriety allowed for emotional identification and understanding in terms of outrage, and that this dynamic is common in the context of anxieties over the transgression of ethnic boundaries. The case is compared with an episode of fears of witchcraft involving the Mien of northern Laos, when an ethnic militia took charge of spiritually and militarily guarding the ethnic boundary. Examination of how the anthropological crisis involving Thailand played out suggests various national differences in the academic discipline, in the United States, Australia, Austria and Thailand. The facts of the case are strongly connected to emotional identification, to a divide in the United States between theoretical and applied anthropology, and to responses to decades of political suppression in the United States.