65th IFLA Council and General
Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999
Oral Tradition in Thailand: A Development Perspective
Local Development Institute - Esarn
Paper presented at an International Conference on "Collection and Safeguarding the Oral Tradition", a Satellite Meeting of The 65th IFLA Council and General Conference August 16-19, 1999, Khon Kaen. Local organization provided by Mahasarakham University, Maha Sarakham, Thailand.
This presentation on oral tradition in Thailand is, hopefully, not entirely out of tune with the main theme of this conference focusing, as it were, on the technical matters of collecting and safeguarding. As outsider in the field, the author can make no claim of contributing anything of value to this distinguished gathering of international library / information specialists. This should be obvious enough. Only that, library / information science itself, by its own nature as one understands it, has also another dimension attached to it, i.e., the user's needs and requirements. So it is strictly this other side of the story that is being put forward here. Needless to say, throughout a fairly long academic and public career, one has been learning and benefiting a great deal from library / information facilities, as conventionally provided by various educational and research as well as mass-media establishments. Indeed, one just cannot do without them. But then, there comes a point in time where the search for knowledge is inherently intertwined one way or another with the issues of change and development, be it human, social, or even academic and educational. The term "development" here is to be taken in a broad and dynamic sense. Above all, it is concerned with the problematiques confronting the existing state of knowledge, particularly in the context of so-called developing countries like Thailand aspiring to be modernized along the path of Westernization and its industrialism. All of which has been going on for too long to the point of crisis within our learning culture as a whole. And this, at least from this user's own experiences, calls for positive involvement on the part of library / information science itself, along with other fellow disciplines, in the collaborative process of creating an appropriate learning process that is to have a positive bearing on the related questions of development. All this inevitably makes the task of library / information operation considerably more complex and perforce innovative. Far beyond dealing with piles of materials that just come by as end products, a shared vision and related strategy needs to be formulated in order to appropriately cope with the subject matter at hand. That is the reason why "development perspective" is somehow to find its legitimate place in this professional forum.
In fact, a sort of collaborative process has already been attempted over the past fifteen years of this user's career. It is of course based on personal and case-by-case basis with little, if any, prospect for continuity and sustainability for lack of institutional backup. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, those cases could in a significant sense be said to form one and the same ongoing process of learning experiences on both sides. Of this more to be later elaborated. What to be stressed at this point is that in this very process of collaboration, one is able to observe the library / information profession at work in the field of real and concrete action, away from everyday bureaucratic environments. On top of collaborative value and in spite of institutional shortcomings typical of Thai academic communities in general, it has its obvious potential of going a long way towards creativity as cross-disciplinary enterprise. For all this, credit must be duly given to Professor Narumon Prajayayothin of the faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University. Incidentally, this writer has only recently learned of the establishment of Library and Information Science Graduate Programme, currently under her chairwomanship. This academic programme nomenclature is somehow symbolic in view of her persistent and untiring efforts all along in lumping the two branches of learning and practicing under one roof. That is surely one most effective way to advance and liberate our search for knowledge from intellectual trap of academic compartmentalization as is presently the case. This writer, again, has long been sharing the same aspiration, just enough to go out of his own way to venture this presentation, mainly as tribute of appreciation to Professor Narumon as well as her colleagues. As pointed out at the beginning, he is only to confine himself within proper bound as a user, the rest then has to be left to the professionals concerned to fulfil the job.
Conceptual and historical setting
This conference is specifically about oral tradition. Let's pause for a moment to see how it should be conceived of and treated. Frankly, this writer is not at all familiar with the subject as specialist. That is why one needs to inquire into its practical meaning through observation from one's own casual experiences and hope it may be of use here, at least with respect to clarifying the developmental issues under discussion. Some fifteen years ago when organizing an annual conference for the Social Science Association of Thailand, we managed to put the topic on oral history of the June 1932 Revolution on the agenda. It was the tape-recorded output of face-to-face interviews with a number of key personalities still alive, and supposed to be kept secret until now. As is obvious to everyone, that type of oral record simply has its own function and knowledge value of explaining or elaborating bygone social and political events and phenomena. Saying this is not by any means to underrate the importance of oral history. It is only a roundabout way of looking into what is called oral tradition. We can of course say that oral tradition is after all also part of history. Events or phenomena in the past could just as well have lasting impact on the present and the future. The same is true with tradition. Only that tradition, to this writer as student of public affairs, has its own distinct value as in itself a set of knowledge and learning culture accumulated from the past. And it is a fact of human life that knowledge is also power. One needs to bear this in mind in dealing with the subject of tradition, oral or otherwise.
It is on this point of knowledge as power that brings us back a little into Thai modern history. As is generally known, the then Siam some 100 years ago was undergoing a most crucial period of modernization and radical reforms during King Rama v's reign. One notable target was education. We all know now that Thai education was ever since modernized and in fact wholeheartedly westernized. Whatever learning and practicing in the past, especially among common people, was all relegated to what the Ministry of Education officially branded as "ancient learning" or Karn Suksa Paen Boraan in Thai, as distinct from "modern" education.(1) In Thailand, whenever something is called Boraan i.e. ancient, it simply means what to be in disuse in favour of something new or modern. This is in stark contrast with the case of Japan which also shared a certain Asian historical perspective with agrarian and traditional past. Actually this writer does not know much about Japanese society and culture either. But then he did manage to learn something striking when serving as research coordinator for the United Nations University over fifteen years ago on the project "Self-Reliance in Science and Technology for National Development". The project comprised six countries' research teams including Japan. Here the Japanese study report makes a very revealing point in its opening paragraph:
We conceive modernization and economic development of a nation as a continuous process of transforming traditional institutions and technology by application of modern scientific knowledge . Crucial issues in self-reliance in science and technology, in our view, arise from whether or not a nation can effectively adopt modern science and technology to develop the tradition as a whole without losing its identity".(2)
So tradition with a keen sense of self-identity serves as the cultural foundation in the process of Japan's modernization and technological development. The result is now clear for everyone to see with one's own eyes, there is no need to further elaborate it. In the case of the then Siam, despite all the cultural flaws among the modernizing elites, the strong pressure for all-out Westernization was not without resistance. And this is very instructive for our point of discussion here in this forum. It was no lesser public figure than Prince Wachirayan Warorot, the King's half brother, who took up the issue. He was not against modernization as such. But then he simply tried to remind everybody concerned with educational reform that traditional style of learning, whatever its defects, was still to be counted as part of education all the same. The point was to have it improved and adapted to keep up with the time.(3) Of course, as we all know, such an insight and vision with a sense of balance was of no avail against the wind of change.
Thai traditional education was naturally geared towards vocational and practical training. The main sources of learning, we are told, were monasteries or, more generally for common people, families. Taken as a whole, the training would cover the knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, and moral conduct. But one could imagine that, in the circumstances, the great majority of people of peasant Siam would belong to non-literate culture, having practically no chance of learning to read and write. And here, the oral tradition played, and still does, its part through words of mouth in instilling and sustaining the indigenous knowledge and learning as inherited from generation to generation. By and large, then, modernization and transformation of Siam, and later on Thailand, has been going on up to now, with traditional learning and indigenous creativity being altogether left out of the domain of so-called formal education.
At this point, let's now take a little close look at the source of oral tradition in question, the peasantry, which is the specific focus of interest here. Academically, again, the subject of Thai peasantry is something completely outside this writer's professional training. It was only the urge to search for feasible explanation of a real and comprehensive Thai political life that prompts one to look beyond Bangkok and urban politics. Mention must be made here with regard to the opening up of a new and short-lived Department of Political Studies at Thammasat. The whole idea was to train political science students for liberal careers, apart from serving the government bureaucracy. All of which necessarily involved efforts to have the curricula and teaching reformed. That was somewhere towards end of the 1960's when political anthropology, as relatively novel academic discipline, made its widespread appearance and greatly helped in reading and gaining more insights into human and cultural reality. All this casual academic background, combined with what has been learned from certain experiences in rural development work over the past five years, seems to confirm what Robert Redfield conceives of concerning peasant communities. His thesis in regard to the dichotomy of great tradition / little tradition looks somehow quite relevant to understanding what has been going on with the Thai peasantry and its oral tradition in the process of modernization and social transformation. So a reading of his concept will be briefly attempted here, somewhat superficially of course, but at least for the benefit of clarifying the place and predicaments of oral tradition in the Thai context.
The point is that oral tradition does not mean just pieces of information or communication to be searched, collected, and preserved for its own sake, but to be first and foremost understood in the context of relationships within the larger social structure. According to Robert Redfield, a peasant community is described as comprising four main characteristics: distinctiveness, smallness, homogeneity, and self-sufficiency.(4) Yet, in spite of its holistic qualities, it is in actuality part-society. In his own words:
In a civilization, there is a great tradition of the reflective few, and there is a little tradition of the largely unreflective many. The great tradition is cultivated in schools or temples; the little tradition works itself out and keep itself going in the lives of the unlettered in their village communities. The tradition of the philosopher, theologian, and literary man is a tradition consciously cultivated and handed down; that of the little people is for the most part taken for granted and not submitted to much scrutiny or considered refinement and improvement.(5)
And in between the great and the little traditions, stand a variety of specialists - priests, teachers, government officials, etc. - with the specific status and role for communicating the greater traditions to the lesser. In the context of interdependence between the two traditions, however, the village communities still preserve their folk culture little affected by the culture of the upper class.(6)
To this writer's mind, this systematic way of describing great / little traditions social structure greatly helps projecting a fairly accurate picture of traditional Siam. In his overall reading of Thai modern history, it can be said that the Thai political economy has been undergoing two main phases of structural change. The first was the forced opening of the country to Western colonial expansion towards the end of King Rama iv's reign some 145 years ago. The second came along with the launching of accelerated industrialization under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat's dictatorship in early 1960's, at the World Bank's inducement as part of the New World Order after the Second World War. This is no place for elaboration on these particular historical events. Suffice it to say that, along the path of Westen-styled modernization and economic development, two inter-related undercurrents could be clearly discerned. One is the decline, or probable collapse, of the existing structural relationships and interdependence, as the great tradition's elite, so to speak, becomes increasingly alienated away from its own socio-cultural base, indeed to the extent of playing hostage to the external power centre under the impact of so-called globalization. And the other is concerned with the probability of growing response on the part of the little tradition - that is to say, the peasantry - to exert its cultural self-identity and thus increasingly inclined towards relocalization.(7) It is largely in this context of structural change that oral tradition, with development perspective, in Thailand comes within purview of this presentation.
Library / information science in collaborative action
From the foregoing, oral tradition is something to be looked into as endogenous source of learning and thus being of great developmental value. In this very sense of continuity and sustainability and yet progressive, it is something alive and dynamic, linking the past, present, and the future. A most pertinent question arises, of course, as to how library and information science comes to be involved in all this undertaking. As non-expert in the matters both of oral tradition and information science, the best one can do is to demonstrate the case studies from one's own concrete experiences that could be of wider application as well as implication for the library and information science and practice itself. For this purpose, mention again must necessarily be made of Professor Narumon Prajayayothin, whom this writer, more often than not, turns to for professional advice and collaboration. It is both good fortune and privilege to have her joining earnestly in the common endeavour . So what is being explained right here in this paper represents only half of the whole story. Maybe even one tenth, as far as library and information activities are concerned. Indeed, her highly valuable part of empirical work deserves to be put on record and carried further on to its logical conclusion, for the benefit to all concerned with the advance of knowledge and learning.
The case studies in question involve two programmes of information-building: Thai studies and rural self-reliant development. The phrase "information building" here sounds like nation-building already in political science's jargon. Actually, it is intended that way, that is to say, a way of coping with something that has its roots, but then is being constrained and inhibited in its potential to grow and further develop itself. Ironically, the so-called Thai studies also largely falls into that kind of predicaments even on the Thai soil itself ! Exactly for this reason, it is strongly felt something needs to be done about it. The two cases were taken up separately over the span of some fifteen years, the second one only recently coming to a close. As earlier emphasized, the two are to be looked at as one and the same ongoing process of learning. Of course, saying all this, including selection of the cases for presentation, would look quite arbitrary, depending on a somewhat personal account of one's own exclusive experiences. That is obviously true. And it is to be understood that it is all a matter of specific line of interest of the one user of library and information science and service. So there could be, and indeed should be, widening variety of users, so that the library and information science and practice itself could be further diversifying and dynamically moving up with the time.
Moreover, users could also vary in terms of role and function, say, from reader to that of programme organizer, as can be inferred from these particular instances. As a matter of fact, this trend of differentiation and diversification is to be expected in technological age where information becomes increasingly embedded in our way of life. That is also why library and information must needs go hand in hand as integrated science to be able to cope with the world of rapid technological change. After all, library is itself a form of information. The point is for it to get more dynamic and alert to the rising needs and requirements that keep changing in scale and complexity.
With these preliminary clarifications in place, we now proceed to the first case concerning Thai studies information programme. It was brought up while the writer was serving as director of the Thai Khadi Research Institute at Thammasat (1981-1985). To begin with, it might not concern itself directly with oral tradition as such. But, given time and the nature of Thai agrarian society and culture, that would of its own logic lead to it in the process, as to be seen in the course of discussion. The immediate purpose, as research funding agency, was to help prospective researchers better prepare themselves in working out their study proposals. In longer terms, that would significantly mean laying the intellectual groundwork for developing novel perspective and originality in indigenous Thai scholarship. One initial way to get it implemented, among other things, was to find ways and means of keeping scholars well informed, as far as possible, of the sources of traditional learning, still largely unknown especially in the provincial and rural part of the country. Hence the needs for library / information service to be created for the purpose. It took of course quite some time to look for someone with practical library / information expertise and open eyes to do the job. Thus came along Professor Narumon Prajayayothin, as earlier mentioned. That was how collaborative efforts between library / information specialist and user came to materialize. Along the way, would-be researchers managed to gradually learn to make use of the collected source information related to specific academic interest. And that also in the process served as prior reading required for preparing research proposals. Thammasat academics' attitudes to all this were mixed: some appreciating it as a good way of improving their own research capability, while many others simply looking upon suggested or required reading as a nuisance.
Even though all these efforts were unfortunately short-lived, one most important lesson could well be drawn, at least from a non-expert's standpoint. It is that, out of the extensive fieldwork operation, there also emerged a sort of regional library / information networking of colleagues able and willing to share points of view and experiences. That was a rare phenomenon and quite an achievement in itself. If sustained, it would go a long way towards learning creativity with respect to Thai studies. In particular, it would greatly and extensively help set in motion the process of regenerating and advancing the body of knowledge on Thai society and culture. Actually the term "Thai studies" is rather awkward here, as it sounds very much like any other Thai studies programmes organized among foreign institutions such as London, Cornell, Yale, and what not. And, sadly enough, we all Thai turn out to be following the footsteps of those foreign lands. It is now quite fashionable for Thai institutions of higher learning to include Thai studies "programmes" on their curricula. But then all practically fall into the same plight. All this in effect is contrary to the original concept of reviving and strengthening the endogenous base of knowledge and learning process as a path leading towards developing a sense of self-identity and freedom. That was the rationale behind the establishment of Thai Khadi Research Institute in the first place. It is on principle not just an end unto itself, but to serve as a means towards communicating its relevant research outputs and outcomes, both of its own and from without, to all teaching faculties and departments concerned. Likewise, it is also obliged to be open to all the feedbacks with regard to teaching needs and requirements that come within the realm of Thai studies. In this constant academic and intellectual dialogue, then, Thai studies would hopefully serve as one crucial linkage between the institutions of higher learning as a whole and the grassroots traditional sources of learning. All this of course does not mean anti-Western or modern knowledge. Neither does it imply a desire to fall back on the traditional past and turn blind eyes on the realities of the contemporary world. The main thing is to get Thai academe and education back on its feet and advance towards creativity of its own free will.
The point about linkage has great implication for library / information science and practice in its task of searching, collecting, and preserving. So a few words need to be said here in this regard. In the writer's study on the subject of self-reliance in science and technology at about the same time as Thai studies information programme under discussion, he also had this to say:
What needs to be stressed at this point is the question of reviving and regenerating this potential creativity, not for its own sake, but to serve as the basis on which modern scientific technology could be adapted and made use of. And here rural participation in technological growth and development is essential, so that the choice and assessment of technology can effectively be made within and by the rural communities themselves, instead of being imposed or forced upon them. Grass-roots participation is obviously a most meaningful way of mobilizing endogenous resources in the process of long-term growth and development .(8)
So "grass-roots participation" is the key. And thus, oral tradition is to come in to share its part of learning and creativity. In fact, it should have been very much the same in dealing with the endogenous sources of traditional knowledge and learning under the Thai studies information programme. Although its stated purpose was to primarily serve would-be researchers' needs, in reality that constituted only part of the whole process. Beyond searching manuscripts and all kinds of materials, there would then be interaction with people as the sources of information and learning. After all, information is not something created just for its own sake. It is in essence the tools to get the learning going, and is therefore always a matter of human purpose and a question of choice. That is why even library / information science and its practitioner, too, cannot get away with the question as to information of whom, by whom, and for whom. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Thai studies information programme in question was so short-lived. Otherwise, it would sooner or later come to face with this intellectual challenge. That is also why the task of searching, collecting, and, preserving is far from being simple and straightforward. Neither is it just a matter of individuals, but concerned with professional ethics and ingenuity as a whole, like any other professions. Only that library / information seems to hold the key in the contemporary world of IT.
That challenge indeed came some fifteen years later when the same library / information scholar and user once again joined forces in coping with another action programme. This time, the objective was plainly and clearly put on the agenda: rural self-reliant development. Its formal project title was Sustainable Agriculture Community Networks. It was the 3-year project (1996-1999), and that allowed for quite a reasonable time span for dealing with highly complex subject matters, the people. To the writer's mind, rural development is fundamentally concerned with human self-development. That is implicit in the objective of rural self-reliant development. Here, one must not confuse this with what is popularly called "human resource development" which, according to economists and supposedly human resource specialists, only means those human groups to be employed or utilized for the purpose of others. The only values left to these groups of people are nothing much more than employment values, and even that is also up to opportunities open to them. In other words, human beings as tools or resources of other fellow human beings. To most if not all professionals, unfortunately, human self-development is absolutely inconceivable. especially the peasantry. And that tells a lot about so-called modern and Western-styled education and professional training, at any rate as practiced in so-called developing countries like Thailand . This is one most delicate and sensitive point to be kept in mind whenever and wherever one talks about "human development", because it could mean either way: developing one's own self or being developed by someone else.
As a matter of fact, the idea of rural self-reliant development is not just something coming out of the blue or personal sentimentality. We have already seen the questioning of modern education ever since the days of absolute monarchy. The state of knowledge and learning has become steadily deteriorating, despite all the academic and technical seemingly advancements. Economic development under the guidance of growth theory literally copied from the West gives rise to widespread poverty and marginalization, as well as natural and ecological degradation. The Thai studies information programme fifteen years past was, among other things, one small instinctive attempt more or less to rectify the intellectual and spiritual setbacks, and in the process brought one to reality concerning the Thai peasantry. This reality embraces both negative and positive aspects. On the negative side, rural poverty and marginalization is of course too obvious for everyone to see. What is of relevant interest here is concerned with the question of the state of knowledge and learning, as James Robertson succinctly put it thus:
Modern economic development began with the deliberate creation of dependency, when the common people were pushed off the land, excluded from their subsistence way of life, and made dependent on paid labour. Modern economic thinking had its roots in the perception of English philosophers Bacon and Hobbes - of nature as a limitless resource to be exploited, of wealth as power to command other people's labour, and of human life as an incessant competitive struggle for power. (9)
What then is most likely solution to the present state of affairs? James Robertson, again, comes up with very interesting proposition:
The new economic order needed now will be one that reflects the needs and realities of a 21st-century world as far removed from Smith's as his was from the middle ages.And also that: The transformation of today's economic order into a new one will be a process of great magnitude and complexity. In terms of idea, the negative side will include critical exposure of the inadequacies and absurdities of conventional economic practice and thought. The positive side will include ideas that clarify and illuminate the scope for a new enabling and conserving approach, and inspire people to commit themselves to it. (10)
Believe it or not, that is precisely the positive side of the Thai peasantry we are talking about. For obviously, what is called "a new enabling and conserving approach" is just as old as Thai history. It was the peasants' style of self-learning inherent in its own traditional "enabling and conserving" way of life. And that was exactly what Prince Wachirayan Warorot did try to preserve as part of educational reform, as previously mentioned. The indigenous culture of self-learning is particularly significant, in view of the fact that it is concerned with management and taking care of rich and delicate biological resources of the world's tiny tropical forests, of which Thailand together with her Southeast Asian neighbours forms a part.(11) Seen in this ecological perspective, then, it is clearly to serve as the basis for truly sustainable development we are calling for nowadays. Here was the oral tradition in full force "in the lives of the unlettered", to use Robert Redfield's phrase again, but then got lost in the course of so-called modernization. Now that modernity and its accompanied style of development itself proves not only negative and destructive, but also out of date, it is the question of how the peasants can learn to get to reality of life. This was one most pertinent question facing the rural self-reliant development project right from the start.
Of course, the knowledge as to "the inadequacies and absurdities of conventional economic practice and thought" is somehow largely unknown to rural folks. It may be partly for lack of information. But mainly and deliberately it is being covered up under the cloak of modernity, which people must be subservient to as well as be educated to aspire to belong to it. That is miseducation and misinformation all the way through. Rural people are systemically made much worse off than any other section of Thai society, serving, as it were, as the source of cheap labour and rich natural resource base. All of which are to be mobilized for the exclusive purpose of economic growth, meaning the formal business sector's never-ending expansion of money interest and power. This is what has been going on throughout the past four decades. Then, just recently, under the banner of political reform and constitutionalism, a new brand of democracy and good governance comes on the scene, ostensibly championing good-clean-transparent politics as against rustic-corrupted old-timers. Intentionally or not, that only leaves practically untouched the existing structural cleavage and injustice, including growth centred, as against human-centred, development policy commitment. Ambivalence still firmly remains as to the peasantry's prospects and its legitimate place in the Thai polity.
The point is we are now talking about completely different kind of development and democracy altogether, especially from the peasantry's standpoint. To begin with, what is being referred to as oral tradition must needs be taken up for serious consideration with a view to appropriate policy formulation. It is the expression of the life style of the "unlettered" that is self-reliant and conserving in its approach to life. As a concept, it belongs not only to the traditional past, but has pertinently universal ring as to the future applicability along the path towards desirable new economic order of the coming century, as James Robertson points out. With this developmental perspective, oral tradition is to function as the engine of rural self-reliant and bottom-up development, no longer something passive and parochial. It is for this very reason that our rural self-reliant development project did turn to rural sages, Prajaya Chao Baan in Thai, as the principal sources of learning in the project's operation. There still remain quite a few of them around the country nowadays. They prove their true worth in being able to keep themselves economically well off in simple peaceful life with freedom and dignity. And this, in the midst of human marginalization and ecological degradation all over, as we all know. So they are the ones in the best position to explain and demonstrate from their own real lives. Though not strictly the lives of the unlettered as in the distant past, it is they who have been carrying on traditional learning and nature-based practice of mixed and diversified farming, or eco-agriculture in modern vocabulary. Thereby, both human livelihood and the nature's integrity are assured. Also economically, it is a form of insurance against the vicissitudes of the market. Of more significance still, underlying all such technical know-how are the Buddhist precepts emphasizing the value of self-knowledge and self-reliance. In the words from Maha Yoo Suntornthai, one most highly revered sage of Esarn (Northeast Thailand):
Anyone, who cannot be self-reliant in making a living, cannot make progress in life. So also, anyone, whose economy is always dependent on others, cannot keep up with them, cannot get rid of poverty, and cannot stand up in economic competition with others.…. Rural economic development means in essence rural economic self-reliance and security.(12)
Such is the elderly Maha Yoo's dharma and worldview of life in his application of farming knowledge and practice. It is concerned not only with individual and household matters, but also looking up to political economy as a whole. Of course, he is unique in his depth of spiritual and intellectual insight, and seems to be the very rare one among Thai rural sages to put forward his views and experience in writing. But that is the product of years and years of piecemeal collection that ends up in a booklet of some 40 pages. Otherwise, he naturally resorts to verbal communication in everyday life, just like any other. With regard to the outlook on life, it could be said that it is more or less the same for Thai rural sages in general, but specific expertises may be varying, and quite so too. Here, in terms of vocational know-how, you also have quite a variety of roles and functions, as well as division of labour within rural communities. And all rely more or less on the same empirical style of teaching and transfer of knowledge, that is to say, learning by doing. That was why our rural self-reliant development project managed to have some ten of them to get together in concerted efforts to have fellow peasants self-trained in both mind and physical skills. They all demonstrated their ability and willingness to contribute, and thus once again brought to life their intellectual vitality and deep sense of spiritual value.
At this point, something needs to be said about rural grass-roots participation. As development programme introduced from outside, how then has it anything to do with common people's participation? Also, of paticular interest to this forum, what and how can library / information science do in all this? First of all, one has to be cautious about the word "participation" as it is, more often than not, being used as alibi for top-down strategy to keep the existing power of control intact and thus status quo. And that would spoil the whole thing altogether, as is always the case in the Thai bureaucratic polity. To the writer's mind, the key is to encourage the usually passive rural folks to learn, as far as possible, to be aware of their own self-identities and to be on their own in doing things. From what was carried out under the project, grass-roots participation could be conceived of at two basic and inter-related levels of knowledgeability: the endogenous sources together with indigenous human resources of learning, and the peasant members who do the self-learning.
As to the first level, the rural sages together with community leaders would play the key role as we have seen, with of course a certain arrangement of learning and training activities involving coordinating volunteers both from within and outside the communities. Here, it would be rather out of the way for this forum to go into lengthy process of all these field and coordinating activities, and it would be long-winded. Let us then proceed to the further level of participation, that is to say, the peasant members themselves, which is of central interest here. It was particularly at this level of grass-roots participation that information science and practice came in to help the self-learning process get going. Professor Narumon Prajayayothin, on her part of collaborative efforts, would certainly have a good deal to say on the matter, along with her long-time junior colleague, Khun Apichart Charoenma, who this time did manage to make use of computer technology to good effect for the purpose. Taking the project as a whole, linking "self-reliant and conserving" farming practices and trainings on one hand and information self-learning process on the other, its perception of the subject matter regarding Thai oral tradition could be summed up here, with a view to its continuing and sustaining potentiality.
Here are the rural common folks systemically led astray into the pitfall of cash-crops style of farming and global monetary economy. Not for long, they become absolutely dependent on market forces under outside power and influence, and thus marginalized. Along with this state of helplessness and despair, there follow poverty, unhealthiness, broken families and communities, land and other natural resources degraded and polluted, and so on and so forth. In all this human tragedy, the government planning agency like the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) can only do no better than gloat over it by describing rural Thailand in simplistic triple terms - ignorance, poverty, sickness - as if it is of no one's fault. Thereupon, huge budgets including foreign aids are to be allocated to the Ministries and Departments concerned to cope with the specific problems in their separate ways. It is all of no avail of course and it would never be, as we see the same pattern of such futile actions reproduced and repeated all over again and again, ad nauseum.
As a matter of fact, these rural plights are only symptomatic. Of course, one can easily points to the development policy or other externalities as the factors that bring them about. On deeper thought, however, the real root cause of them all is to be found in the lack of self-awareness and self-learning itself. This may sound abstract and unpractical. But it is very true, as the nature of self-reliant and conserving line of development makes it inherently so. The reason for this should be obvious enough, as we are right now witnessing those rural sages as distinct exemplars of being able to get on sufficiently well in the face of untoward external world. For rural folks in general, by contrast, practically the whole spiritual value and traditional learning that goes with it is just all gone. It is like falling down when the magic carpet (cash-crops, market, export, money, conspicuous consumption, etc.) is being pulled off from under one's feet, while the rural sages stand up firmly on the foundation of local traditional wisdom like rare spots of light in the vast sea of darkness.
The point of saying all this is to try to elucidate the real and ultimate meaning of Thai rural sages' traditional values and teachings. It is not purely vocational and technical as such, though this aspect of learning certainly plays its own substantive and empirical part. It is above all concerned with transmission of spiritual and cultural values along the path of dharma . Both dimensions, the practical and the spiritual, constitute the two sides of the same coin. This is where and how Thai oral tradition is being kept alive and displaying its dynamism and creativity in a search for development alternative to current hegemonic globalization. Indeed, if what is called relocalization is to mean anything at all, it must needs be firmly implanted and cultivated onto this spiritual and cultural foundation. There remains the question of how self-awareness and self- learning is to be brought to the "unlettered lives" in rural communities. It certainly is not a matter of one-sided or top-down affairs. Ways and means must be found for these common people to stand up on their own to make self-realization come true. All this was attempted in the project under discussion. Literate practice also came into play, however elementary it was, so as to enliven traditional learning to the needs and requirements of the modern time. Of course, conceived of as self-learning and human growth process, its mission could only be at the beginning and bound to leave much to be desired.
Prospects and rethinking oral tradition
Even what was performed during those three years under the project also depends precariously on the human and cultural factors within the communities themselves. On the part of rural folks, there seems to be not much of the problem. After all, self-reliant and conserving style of traditional farming practices is not entirely new or strange thing at all. In fact, there appear traces of them all around, here and there. That is why a good number of our peasant members are able to readily grasp all the technical side of it quite soon enough. Up to the level of moral and spiritual values, however, it is a different story. Though some come earnestly to its appreciation, many more express their ambivalence as to its genuine and lasting merit. The latter attitude is by no means unnatural in view of the Thai peasantry as a whole being torn between the influential mainstream belief and the alternative deviating from it. It is very much a matter of collective self-learning from within the communities themselves. Community leaders would certainly be of a great help serving as transmission belt of moral and spiritual values, if only they are sufficiently well aware of their proper place in the whole affairs. In particular, if only they are not to be seduced into external power play that brings them exclusive personal influence and gains. Academics are not of much help either, as they themselves mentally and professionally belong to exogenous and alienated sources of learning that make up the mainstream political economy of development. To them as well as government authorities, such alternative is simply inconceivable.
Against the background of all these constraints, a certain organizational setup was organized towards end of the project. So apart from community leaders, a good number of members were also elected to various groups or committees in charge of specific functions: savings funds, housewives, traditional medicines, plants, livestock, etc. The idea was to have more decentralization and diversifying division of labour within communities. Significantly, it would help pave the way for new and young leaders and wider community networks to carry on further the task of self-reliant development. These leading members were not just outright elected, but actually emerged out of what we call group learning precess that was in operation throughout the project. All in all, it was up to these leading individuals and groups that would hopefully be working towards the ultimate objective of self-consolidating from within their own communities. Without consolidated sense of community and inner integrity, it is next to impossible for these rural folks to stand up to the wind of change, despite the full three years of self-reliant development efforts.
All the above concern aside, there is also something more that needs to be said about oral tradition which is the specific focus in this forum. It is the question of its value and meaning. As stressed throughout, oral tradition is not just a bygone past. With a certain development perspective, we may be able to discover something meaningful and relevant to contemporary life and problems. Thailand's rural self-reliant development is a pertinent case in point. This writer is in no position to suggest beyond limited experience. A most notable one comes to mind from visits to the museums. In a recent trip to The Institute for Southern Thai Studies, Thaksin University, for instance, one could observe a great collection of artifacts and household tools there. In the light of our current thinking now about the desirability and feasibility of self-sufficient and communal economy, as alternative to unbridled individualism, extreme capitalism, and globalization, one could imagine something positive and creative out of all these materials. Thereby, some concrete picture of appropriate economy could be formulated as part of the new economic order. The point is oral tradition may not necessarily come from humans. Library / information practitioners might just as well manage a sort of dialogue with the materials which can also tell us some interesting story that may well serve our present needs. This line of thinking is not just a wild imagination. It comes out of concern with regard to the way our Thai society has been undergoing changes. It is modernization without its own traditional roots. Tradition is not necessarily something in contradiction against change and development. In the final analysis, it is just the question of "whether or not a nation can effectively adopt modern science and technology to develop the tradition as a whole without losing its identity", as well expressed in the case of Japan earlier referred to. And in this perspective of creativity, oral tradition certainly can play a positive part.
1 History of the Ministry of Education 2435-2507, published on the 72nd anniversary of the Ministry, 1 April, B.E. 2507, p. 29
2 Toshio Shishido et al., Self-Reliance in Science and Technology in National Development, Research report submitted to The United Nations University, Tokyo, 1986, p. 1. Italics mine.
3 National Archives, R. 5, S. 2/5; David K. Wyatt, The Politics of Reform in Thailand: Education in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1969, pp. 325-326.
4 Robert Redfield, The Little Community and Peasant Society and Culture, Chicago and London, Phoenix Books, The university of Chicago Press, 1965, Section "The Little Community", p.4.
5 Ibid., Section "Peasant Society and Culture", pp.41-42.
6 Ibid., p. 44.
7 The term used in Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, ed., The Case Against The Global Economy and For A Turn Toward The Local, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1996. See especially Part Four: "Steps Toward Relocalization".
8 Saneh Chamarik, "Technological Self-Reliance and Cultural Freedom", in C.G. Weeramantry, ed., Human Rights and Technological Development, Tokyo, United Nations University Press, 1990, p.53.
9 James Robertson, Future Wealth: A New Economics for the 21st Century, London, Cassell Publishers Limited, 1990, p. 4.
10 Ibid., pp. 4 and 6.
11 According to E.O. Wilson, although tropical forests cover only 7% of the Earth's land surface they contain more than half the species in the entire world biota. By 1986, of the estimated 5 to 10 millsion species that exist globally, the World Resources Institute and the International Institute of Environment and Development (WRI and IIED) reported between 3.7 and 8.7 million in the tropics. See E.O. Wilson, ed., Biodiversity, Washington D.C., National Academy Press, 1988, pp.8 and 60.
12 Maha Yoo, Concept of Diversified Agriculture, (in Thai), Local Development Institute - Esarn, B.E.2540, p, 27. Author's own translation.