Campus / News / October 23, 2008

Shan culture still strong

Nancy Eberhardt, Professor of Anthropology/Sociology, gave a presentation Friday on her research about an ethnic minority called Shan in the Thai-Burma border. Her research explored the economic, social, and cultural processes in Thailand, as well as how those processes compare to the United States.

“I’ve always conducted my research in a rural base, living in a particular Shan village near the Thai-Burma border…but for the 2006-2007 trip, we decided to live in the city…Living in Chiang Mai for the year gave me the opportunity to explore parts of the city with the new and growing Shan community while still allowing me to make regular trips to the border and maintain contact with my Shan contacts,” said Eberhardt. “This experience of going back and forth between the city and the village prompted me to reflect upon the different ways Shan culture and ethnic identity are manifested in rural and urban context in a way that really complicated my understanding of post-Shan culture and what it means to identify oneself as Shan.”

Commenting on her work, Eberhardt said, “The experience of living in Chiang Mai and going back and forth…forced me to think about the nature of what we in anthropology call ‘doing field work’ and where the boundaries of the field are. During my previous stay in Thailand, when I lived primarily in the village, I knew where I was in the field and when I was out…These boundaries all but disappeared during my most recent trip.”

During Eberhardt’s study of a Shan village during the last 30 years, the community has changed substantially. From 1979-1981, 300 people lived in the village. They mainly farmed and grew enough rice for the household and one or two cash crops. They had no electricity or running water. Houses were built traditionally on stilts.

In 1990, the Burmese government relocated Shan — sometimes by force — in order to control resources and build a huge dam. There were 300,000 Shan and other ethnic groups who were displaced. Thousands crossed over into Thailand to work in urban areas like Bangkok, while others ended up in refugee camps. In ten years, there has been an increase in people coming and families migrating.

Two-thirds of refugee households were able to gain access to land. Many of these people were former seasonal migrants who maintained relationships with the townspeople and became renters. Some refugees intermarried with the locals. Once they were married to locals, they were able to bring their parents and families from the Shan state.

In 1991 greater emphasis was placed on road improvement, cash crops, limited wage labor, and houses were built on closed cement floors. Charcoal replaced firewood to cook, supplemented with an electric rice cooker. Ox carts were used as pickup trucks for deliveries. Some wealthy families sent their children to school in town, leaving children whose parents could not afford transportation costs in the village schools.

Sheena Leano


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