Mourning a Son of the Soil

Nantiya Tangwisutijit || Subhatra Bhumiprabhas

originally published at The Nation on January 11, 2013.

Not long ago, Isaan was simply seen as a supply of workers facilitating Bangkok’s sprawl. But when these workers started going home, sharing ideas, music and culture, the result cemented the northeastern region into the Thai fabric far more than the buildings and roads the region’s people helped to construct decades earlier.

No one did more to articulate the evolution and importance of this trend than anthropologist Pattana Kittiarsa, who at just 45 died of cancer yesterday in a Singapore hospital.

Once he left his Nong Khai home for the University of Washington, he devoted his life to documenting how increasingly influential Isaan has become to Thai economics, politics and culture. His studies and writings include Thai Migrants in Singapore: State, Intimacy and Desire (2008); Muai Thai Cinemas and the Burdens of Thai Men (2007); The Ghost of Transnational Labour Migration: Death and Other Tragedies of Thai Workers in Singapore (2005); and Rice Festivals in Northeast Thailand.

Pattana was born in the northeastern province of Nong Khai. He began his anthropological career as a student at Khon Kaen University. After completing his PhD at the University of Washington in 1999, he returned to his Isaan homeland to teach at Suranaree University in Nakhon Ratchasima province. He had been an associate professor in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore since 2004.

Apart from working in his classroom in Singapore, the anthropologist also worked tirelessly to help improve the rights of Thai labourers until his last breath. His studies and his advocacy helped lift the welfare and social status of thousands of Thai migrant workers in Singapore, most of whom are from Isaan.

Pattana’s mentor, Professor Charles Keyes, who was among the first generation of Western anthropologists focusing on the Isaan culture, wrote of Pattana: “I feel greatly honoured to have had Pattana as my luksit [student], but I also see myself as his luksit as well, since I have learned as much from him as I know he has learned from me. I also have come to feel a deep sense of kinship with him that goes well beyond our academic relationship. His death is a great personal loss, but I take some solace in knowing his karmic legacy will continue for a long time to come.”

Colleague and friend Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University, wrote in a farewell message: “Pattana’s lifelong aspiration was to be able to take part in the world of anthropology outside his home. I once asked him why? He unhesitatingly responded, ‘the Western community of anthropology is so lively and energetic, I wish I could contribute to such a vibrant and challenging academic atmosphere. For a native anthropologist of northeastern Thailand, this kind of dream means an intense self-discipline, hard work and constant struggle in the highly competitive world of academia, where qualifications are judged by the mastery of theoretical knowledge, language and novelty of thought. This is undoubtedly a tiring journey.’

But for Pattana, it was always a rite of passage, a difficult path one had to learn to become intellectually mature. And through such academic life struggles, a multitude of anthropological work and knowledge was produced. From religious cults, transmigration, to popular culture and politics, his engaged ethnography has opened up the voices of the unheard others, telling the stories of marginal subjects whose existence is often neglected by society. The productive life he lived has now ended. But the journey and legacy of his hard work will remain an inspiration to us all.

Pattana left his wife Rungnapa and their two children. His funeral rites will be held for three nights starting at 7.30pm at Wat Ananda Metyaram in Singapore, and the cremation will take place on Sunday (January 13).

While his family, friends and colleagues mourn his untimely death, Thai society is once again reminded how, like so many sons and daughters of Isaan, Pattana contributed to the ongoing evolution of Thai society in very meaningful and profound ways.

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