The modern Phu-Tai People and their dissipation of identity

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Chom Saenmit 88 years old look back to his youth with fondness. He remembers the year the school was built and he was enrolled in the first class of his village in Ban Na Bua. Chom is Phu-Tai, not to be confused the  Budai groups of Northern Vietnam and Southern China as they so often are. The current Phu-Tai residing in Thailand are the descendants of various  groups of Phu-Tai settlers who migrated from Kham Muam and Savannakhet during the 19th century. Chom recalls the time when his school first opened, the Phu-Tai people learned with their teachers speaking Laos at first, then Thai and finally Phu-Tai. The younger generations all speak Phu-Tai, even the youngest children have a knowledge of the language; thanks to the efforts of teachers like Ajarn Darang Lang the local Anuban teacher the language is being kept alive.

 

 

There has not been much of a decline in the number of speakers of Phu-Tai according to the research of William A. Smalley 2005 . That is not to say that the Phu-Tai language is not altered more each and every year in numerous ways. In the past Phu-Tai communities very much kept to themselves, married amongst themselves and held on to their inherent traditions.

 

 

 

Chom recalls a time when parents chose the partners for their children, a tradition common among many ethnic groups in Thailand’s past. This  kept the Phu-Tai community very closed off in the past, yet keeping their culture and customs very much intact. During the last hundred years however the Phu-Tai communities have become more and more integrated into greater Thai society. Phu-Tai people are free to marry who they will now, no matter their religious or cultural background. Chom told regrettably us of how his daughter has married a man from Phuket, she lives  there with him now and has even converted to Islam. Something which would certainly not have happened in the past. Cases like his daughters have of course made numerous changes to the Phu-Tai language. Even if Phu-Tai people are marring individuals who live nearby, they may not be Phu-Tai, they are more often than not in fact Thai. This is leading to more and more Thai words being assimilated into the Phu-Tai language.

 

 

 

 

Phu-Tai  are almost entirely Buddhist now, differing from most other branches of Tai ethnicity who very much keep to their own animistic and spiritual religious practices. The Phu-Tai people do however keep many of their spiritual and medicinal traditions alive by the use of mo yao healing. This is both a herbal and shamanistic form of healing. Most of the Phu-Thai communities still follow the practice but the younger generation specifically see little merit in it. There has been significant research into the effective of Mo yao healing by numerous anthropologists and Thai medical professionals . Most notably were several studies using both quantative and qualitive data into several Phu-Tai communities throughout Kalasin province. One such study was carried out by Mr.Thanyalux Mollerup which revealed the intricate relationship between the Phu-Tai people and Mo yao healing to still be very much alive, however it is now practiced in a very different way from when it once was. The research by Thanyalux also revealed how the Thai government healthcare system has taken place of Mo yao healing in most villages, as government healthcare programs reach even the most remote peoples now. Most of the reliance now tends to be on mental and non-physical forms of healing as these can often be put down to spiritual ailments. Mo yao healing is a major part of the traditional Phu-Tai lifestyle and if it is lost so too may their ethnic identity.

 

 

The Phu-Tai people have not entirely lost their identity, however. Another individual trying to keep Phu-Tai traditions alive is Mr.Jarook Saenmit, the deputy president of the thambon sub-district. Jarook has tried several approaches to keep the Phu-Tai cultural heritage alive. He told us of how even just 50 years earlier the area surrounding where we were interviewing him was once a forest. Ban Na Bua was once very much a forested region of Isaan. He told us of how people used stilts as a way to cross through the forests and avoid the mud and water. Jarook is attempting to revitalize Phu-Tai traditions by running various activities and workshops for the locals. Some of the activities include showing the children how to use the stilts, variations of Phu-Tai dancing and singing workshops, as well as weaving and numerous other traditional practices.  No one can be certain how the Phu-Tai people will have changed in another hundred years, nor how much of their cultural identity will have survived. We can, however, be confident that through the efforts of individuals like Mr.Jarook, not all of the  Phu-Tai heritage will be lost.

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