In the land of Pii Poob and Pii Grasueh: how malevolent magic epitomizes Khmerness in contemporary Thailand
Benjamin Baumann (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
Paper short abstract:
Exploring how Khmer speaking villagers in Thailand think about local forms of malevolent magic, as well as describing some of the related ritual practices, I will argue that the ambiguous characteristics of two malevolent spirits, mirror and epitomize the ambiguity of Khmerness in contemporary Thailand.
Paper long abstract:
From magic tattoos to love potions and malevolent spirits, Thai popular discourse intimately links the socio-cultural category Khmer to magical practices. Although stigmatized as deviations from the imagined orthodoxy of a state sponsored Theravada Buddhism, these practices nevertheless represent sources of great spiritual potency and are seen as indigenous traditions. Linking the present with a past known for the omnipresence of supernatural powers, Khmer magic commonly evokes feelings of fear and respect, while simultaneously being sought for in various contexts. Ranging from politicians to prostitutes, members of all strata of contemporary Thai society engage in magical practices, whereby the extraordinary power of Khmer magic is commonly agreed upon. This paper aims at exploring how the intimate relationship of Khmerness and magic inflicts upon processes of socio-cultural identification in Thailand's lower Northeast, a region where approximately one million people speak a local Khmer dialect as mother tongue. Exploring how villagers in Buriram province think about local forms of magic, spirits, and witchcraft, as well as describing some of the related ritual practices and their popular religious foundations, I will argue that the ambiguous characteristics that two malevolent spirits display in local discourse, mirror and epitomize the ambiguity associated with being a Khmer speaker in contemporary Thailand. Furthermore, I will show that popular religious concepts like spirits and witchcraft continue to represent reference points for interpreting misfortune and illness and supernatural agency continues to be a driving force in social group formation, despite the fundamental transformations of village life caused by globalization.