Law and Values in Tai societies

International Review on Tai cultural Studies

Special Issue

Through the course of history, the Tai speaking groups which form the main ethnic group of Mainland Southeast Asia, and the second largest ethnic groups in China and Vietnam had constituted their own principalities or early states (müang), monarchies and modern nation states, whose legal and administrative systems integrated both Buddhist/Hinduistic and traditional (pre-Buddhist) Tai concepts of government policy, administration and jurisdiction.
Specific concepts of law were developed in these Tai societies, and these concepts to date form an important part of the indigenous knowledge system, especially concerning social behaviour, property rights, community management, and conflict solving. Tai perceptions of rights and justice - even in modern times - are strongly connected with traditional cosmology, Buddhist morality, the traditional values system and the community, and rights and responsibilities are determined mostly by the needs of the community. The latter plays a central role in the traditional (pre-Buddhist as well as Buddhist) law systems, but was much neglected when introducing modern law in the states of Southeast Asia. The sometimes contradictory relation between popular traditional perceptions of justice and rights on the one side, and modern state law on the other side results in conflicts not only between the state (administrators) and the population, but also within families (caused by differences in modern and traditional inheritance law, marriage and divorce law etc.) and communities (caused by differences in modern and traditional irrigation law, administration law, religious affairs, rural development regulations etc.)
Seemingly, there appears a certain antagonism between traditional perceptions of justice, rights and responsibilities on the one side, and modern state law and international law on the other side, which officially sometimes is used to legitimate a so-called “Asianisation” of law, democracy and human rights. But in fact, the so-called “Asianisation” holds a great potential for undermining democracy and human rights, and for discrimination of certain communities and social, religious as well as ethnic minorities.
However, the “Asianisation” of law and human rights cannot be legitimate as long as the traditional concepts of law and the popular perceptions of rights and justice are not studied, analysed and evaluated from an objective academic perspective. A first step is the systematic study of the traditional perceptions of law, rights and justice in Tai cultures.

Academic research on legal traditions in Tai societies until now emphasised several Buddhist law codes in Thailand and Laos, as the Traiphum code of Sukhothai, the Phosarat code and Nidan Khun Borom of Lan Sang, and the Mangraisart of Lan Na. Buddhist law codes were of a special juridical significance in religious and urban centres, where Buddhist kings or noblemen resided. At the village level, especially at the outer periphery where the influence and control of central rulers was not as strong as in the administrative centres, traditional codes such as hiit khoong and khoo haam codes were of great importance. These codes regulating especially social relations and inter-personal behaviour as well as intra- and inter-community relations in the traditional Tai hierarchical societies supposedly were of pre-Buddhist origin, though partially influenced by Buddhist thought and morality.
Traditional Tai law codes were collected and transcribed from historical manuscripts into modern scripts by Thai, Lao and Vietnamese scholars. Thanks to their work we have access to the hiit khoong codes of the Black Tai (Tai Dam) in Vietnam and the Lao in Laos and Thailand, and partially to the khüt and khoo haam codes of former Lan Na (Northern Thailand). But systematic analyses of these codes are still lacking.
From a first study of the traditional law codes of the Tai one can say that the community was strongly emphasised. Law was constituted for the sake of communities within the baan-müang system, such as the community of the extended family, of the village, or whole müang polities. Law codes defined rights but also responsibilities of the individual within a community, and of sub-communities within extended communities. On the other side, rights and responsibilities of major communities towards sub-communities and individuals were formulated in traditional law codes. Buddhist and traditional pre-Buddhist law were strongly based on traditional values and aimed to prevent social and political conflicts, and to protect the human communities. Thus, harmony and conflict-free social interaction are highly appreciated by all Tai to date. The preventive community-oriented character of the traditional codes might be an important difference to western law concepts, which accept the conflict as a social reality and which are more oriented to solve existing conflicts than to prevent them.

The special issue of TAI CULTURE with the title "Law and Values in Tai baan-müang" is the outcome of a 2-year research project that brought together scholars from different countries and from different disciplines, who did research on traditional law concepts and traditional perceptions of justice, rights and responsibilities in Tai societies. The aim of the project was to provide fundamental knowledge which is needed for comparison with other Asian societies, and to conceptualise traditional Tai perceptions of law, rights and justice. Starting from the point that traditional concepts of law basically influence the actual perceptions of rights and responsibilities, the project also aimed to analyse and to compare the regulations concerning individual-community interaction in Tai societies, and to re-conceptualise Tai perspectives on rights and responsibilities as expressed in traditional law codes.
The contributions in this special issue, on the one side, provide an „inside“ Tai perspective by using original sources and by paying attention to the specific Tai terminology. Researchers and specialists from different countries and from a variety of disciplines, such as specialists in the study of law and law history in Southeast Asia, philologists, linguists and anthropologists were brought together to compare and to discuss several traditional Tai law codes from the viewpoint of the complex study of the Tai baan-müang knowledge systems. On the other side, the modernisation of traditional Tai law systems and changes in the perceptions of law due to external influences (Buddhism, sinicisation, colonialism, interaction with non-Tai ethnic groups) are examined in this special issue.

The research project was initiated and organised by SEACOM Berlin in 1998. Scholars and young researchers from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Germany were involved in several workshops and round table discussions in Thailand and Germany as well. After the project was announced officially in 1997, several other initiatives and projects dealing with traditional forms of law in Southeast Asia and their actual role started in Vietnam (Conference on “Customary Law and Rural Development in Contemporary Vietnam”, Buon Ma Thuot, November 1999), Thailand (TRF Project “Community Rights in Southeast Asia”, Bangkok 1999-2001), and the USA (Tamara Loos, Cornell University: panel proposal to AAS 2001 “Comparative Colonial Jurisprudence in Southeast Asia”). The increase of research activities having traditional forms of law in their focus without doubt proves that the significance of traditional law is going to be recognised more and more not only in historical and anthropological research on SEA, but also in comparative legal and political studies at an international level.

Tai Legal History in Pictures