"The Spirits Were Always Watching": Buddhism, Secular Law, and Social Change in Thailand



Published as Chapter 12 in After Secular Law, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Robert A. Yelle & mateo Taussig-Rubbo, eds.

This chapter provides a counter-example to the usual story of legal secularization and modernization. It suggests that the enactment of a secular law code in a non-European setting can interact in unexpected ways with local religious traditions and customary law and can ultimately produce a widespread rejection of liberal legalism.

Legal modernization in Thailand during the early Twentieth Century brought the semi-autonomous Lanna region under the control of the emergent Thai state (Then known as Siam). Thai leaders sought to suppress a vibrant Lanna legal tradition that linked village-level customary practices to the formal laws of the Lanna princes. In this tradition, legal concepts and practices were closely connected to a distinctive form of Buddhism that incorporated non-Buddhist elements associated with spirit worship. When the Thai state adopted a European-style civil code, it aimed to shatter these connections between law and religion and curb local traditions that might challenge state supremacy. Instead, customary legal beliefs and practices were driven underground and continued to shape the behavior of potential litigants, lawyers, and judges in ways that could not be openly acknowledged. Only in recent years, with the disruptions and dislocations caused by global influences, have Lanna legal and religious practices begun to fade. Yet this recent development has not brought a greater acceptance of secular legalism but rather a new form of Buddhism that views law and religion as inherently oppositional. Focusing on injury cases, this analysis shows how religious consciousness can be transformed and strengthened within a modern state, leading to a widespread perception that secular law is contrary to fundamental values and beliefs.

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Stanford University Press


Redwood City



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legal secularization, modernization, law and religion, Buddhism, customary Law, Thailand, Asian law


Anthropology | Law | Law and Society