Folk ballads, prophecies, and ideologies: The arms of the Holy Man’s Rebellion in war with Bangkok

Cannon during the reign of King Chulalongkorn. Credit: The National Archive of Thailand

The Thai-language side of The Isaan Record has been publishing a series on the “Holy Man Rebellion” of 1901-02. We are sharing select pieces to our English-language readers. In this article, Weerawat Somnoek looks at the most powerful weapon used in the “Isaan Phi Bun Rebellion” against the dominance of Bangkok. It was not their swords or spears, but their ballads that helped spread and strengthen a certain ideology among the oppressed that inspired them to stand up against authority.

“An incomparably tranquil society, animals and humans live in peace, no bandits, no cattles robbers. Streams filled with water, and villagers warmly settled in amiable neighborhoods.”

This Buddhist mantra, chanted in Isaan language about the perfect utopia, reflects a stream of thought held by the Phi Bun [Holy Man] rebels longing to liberate themselves from the central government.

Undoubtedly, after long-standing oppression, tax fleecing, and neglect, groups of people from the kingdom’s Northeast tried to look for a better life. Calling themselves “holy men,” they declared they would bring prosperity to the region, and establish themselves as the new leaders.

From the 1699 Bun Kwang Rebellion to the 1959 Sila Wongsin Rebellion during the military regime of Sarit Thanarat, the Isaan region saw as many as nine “Holy Man Rebellions” [khabot phi bun] in the country. Notable was the 1901 Holy Man Rebellion in Isaan, where up to 60 “holy men,” scattered across 13 provinces, rose up.

From the very first confrontations between the local holy men and the central government, these rebels (labeled by the state with the slur, “phi bun”), met only with defeat and destruction. However, the spirit of the holy fighters has remained in people wishing to escape Thailand’s Bangkok-centric domination.

It was present in the Sila Wongsin Rebellion; it has continued to be revived time after time, ranging from the communist movement during the Cold War, to the villagers’ movement against the Pak Mun Dam in 1994, to the Red Shirt in 2010, and was most recently revitalized in the campaign calling for justice for the political dissidents who have been forcibly disappeared.

From the past to the present, the phi bun have dreamt of being able to govern themselves. Their rudimentary physical weapons have always been inferior to the state’s advanced forms of warfare, such as trains and  artillery.

These rebels instead have fought with other kinds of weapons, such as poetry and ballads whose message of disobedience has been passed down, by word of mouth, from generation to generation.

The most powerful weapon of the phi bun has seemed to be their ideology. Their deep and intense yearning for freedom has always been perceived as a threat to the authorities, as if they were the ghosts of time haunting those trapped in the bubble of conservatism.

This article introduces readers to klon lam, a textbook of prophecies containing a certain system of thought: the battle weapon of phi bun’s rebellions against Bangkok.

The ballads of dissent

Besides singing for entertainment, Isaan mor lam has also at times served as messengers of news and prophecies. The lyrics were meant to deliver messages about the hardships of local villagers. Some attacked Thai people (“The Thais are so callous. They should all die.”), while others were bellicose (“Chase away the Thais, bring back our lands… Kill all Thais.”). These kinds of lyrics inspired some to become rebellious, kindling hope that their lives could be better than what they had at the moment.

An image reportedly taken during the time of phi bun Mor Lam Sopha.

In 1933, one year after the democracratic revolution, there was a man who claimed himself to be a holy man. He traveled about recruiting believers and supporters, and formed a group that formed the core of the “Mor Lam Noi Chada Rebellion.” The group propagated its agenda through folk ballads, preaching, and fortune telling. Chada’s songs encouraged people to defy the system by stopping paying taxes or sending their children to school, as it would take time from making a living. The message was also for people to stop paying respect to monks because monks were nothing but men wearing yellow robes looking to exploit others.

In 1939, another phi bun rebellion broke out in Ban Sawathi in Khon Kaen province, a village renowned for mor lam. The “Mor Lam Sopha Rebellion” was led by Sopha Poltree, a wealthy and educated man. As an opponent of the Phibun government, he usually sang to locals about Bangkok’s cultural homogenization and the state’s systematic oppression. Sopha once traveled to the capital, asking to meet King Ananda to submit his complaints about education, the law, forestry, and the land tax. But as the king was staying abroad at the time, the meeting never happened but Sopha did manage to write some telling ballads from the trip.

“Horses grow horns. Posts bloom flowers.” (the first describes motorcycles, the latter lampposts)

“With a giant tube, stones are shaken and tossed every ten days, but no one becomes indebted.” (describing the lottery).

“A boxing match is held abroad, but we can listen to it at home.” (describing a radio)

Prophecies sweep the region

“Pebbles turn into gold, silkworms turn into snakes, and mermaids lose their fangs and bite their owners. Pigs and tamed cattle turn into ogres who devour men.”

“Wood by the river banks, shredded soft and smooth, to turn into silk. Save them up and there’ll be no more trouble raising silkworms.”

“Gourds will turn into elephants. Storms will rage with gusts so strong a man can be swept away. People’s money will become iron.”

All of Isaan went into a frenzy over these prophecies that circulated during the 1901 Phi Bun Rebellion. Government officials travelled from Nakhon Ratchasima to Ubon Ratchathani, talking with village heads and locals to gather information about all the rumors or predictions circulating about.

Photo from the 1901 Phi Bun Rebellion of people detained by soldiers at Thung Sri Mueang, Ubon Ratchathani, from History of Isaan by Toem Wiphakphojnakit [เติม วิภาคย์พจนกิจ]

It’s undeniable that many people fell for these rumors. In Sisaket, locals who believe that “money will turn into iron” rushed out to shop throughout the city without the usual haggle over prices. Any change was thrown away or given to the Chinese merchants, making the latter richer and richer. “Keep the money when it turns into iron,” jeered the believers. “The pebbles collected will be worshipped until they turn into gold.”

The beliefs spread like wildfire. Everywhere villagers went out picking up pebbles. Phra Yanarakkit, a Siam government official, reportedly said, “From Ubon to Sangka, everyone has gone mad. They can’t stop talking about the holy men. No matter where I went, women, men, children, village headmen, even governors, came to ask about the holy men… [The movement] spread even as far as Nakhon Ratchasima.”

Residents and civil servants in some areas were so overwrought by the prophecies of the phi bun that they stopped working. Some farmers left rice in the paddy unharvested and was eaten by cattles. Plantations and farms were abandoned because people were so convinced they would easily become rich by worshipping the pebbles until they turned into gold.

The chain letter strategy

Leaders of the Phi Bun Rebellion called for an ousting of the central government after which a new order would be founded by divine spirits. One of the most important methods for expanding support and propagating their ideology was through books. Books about the phi bun leaders contained a ploy that compelled people to make copies of them to spread the word as widely as they could–much like a chain letter.

The content of these books advocated the idea of freeing themselves from the Siamese government control, such as in Phu Mi Bun, Phraya Dhammikaraj, and Phraya Indra, that spelled out monthly prophecies. These books exhorted people to make merit, uphold the Five Precepts, respect their parents and teachers. If they did, then Indra would bring them fortune. But readers had to make copies or tell others about the books’ message. It was believed that people in a household where these books were not present would die.

Phi Bun Sila, arrested in 1959 during regime of dictator Sarit Thanarat

The chain letter ploy helped rapidly spread the rumors about the holy men because people believed that if they didn’t forward the stories to other people, a disaster would follow. Making a copy or spreading the message orally were not onerous compared to the dangers posed to their life and their family if they didn’t. Undeniably, this tactic was effective. The messages of phi bun were disseminated far and wide.

Persistent oppressions, persistent uprisings

“My ancestors were killed like that. They weren’t as lucky as I’ve been. My grandfather was accused of being a Phi Bun rebel and beheaded,” Pichet “DJ Toi” Tabudda, one of the leaders of United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) in Ubon Ratchathani, told a news outlet in December 2015 after being convicted of arson in the burning of the Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Hall and sentenced to life by the Supreme Court. 

“I’ve been much luckier,” he said, “Just a life jail term.”

The majority of people joining the Red Shirt movement in 2010 was from Isaan. They share similar thoughts to those of phi bun, wanting to liberate themselves from Bangkok’s control. They demanded freedom to set up their own local government and other civil rights, before they were violently cracked down upon.

Teerapon Anmai, liberal arts lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University, similarly remarks, “Protesting is very common among Isaan people. Look back to when the Phi Bun Rebellion was suppressed on April 4, 1901. Up to 300 Laos-Isaan people were shot dead at Baan Sapue, Ubon Ratchathani,” he says. “Think about what kind of people have been shot dead, what kind of issues have driven Isaan people to protest, to rally together.”

Teerapon holds that the political movement in 2010 wasn’t something that came out of the blue. It was much like other times when Isaan people have attempted to exercise their democratic rights. And now, a new Phi Bun movement is emerging.

“Don’t forget that Isaan used to be marked as the ‘red zone’ during the Cold War, as it was a stronghold of the Communist Party of Thailand,” Teerapol asserts. During that time, Isaan was being monitored closely by the Thai government. The authorities have never been shy of politicizing their crackdowns on Isaan people. It has always been a fight between a local ideology and the state artillery – sponsored by taxpayer money.

Even in 2020, a prominent junta opponent, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, abducted from his residence in Cambodia where he lived in exile, became another phi bun, revived in a resistance campaign against the military government’s oppression.

Some of the clothes belonging to Wanchalearm “Tar” Satsaksit, a disappeared Thai activist, displayed at the UBON AGENDA exhibition. Credit: Titipol Phakdeewanich / Twitter

The ultimate weapon to victory

The phi bun’s weapon in the past might have been the stories of their supporters who wanted to break the chain, liberating themselves from the misery of being enslaved or forced into corvee labor, or compelled to pay endless levies. It’s been hope that has helped nourish and propel Isaan society forward. Under extreme pressure, the quest for better life choices and solutions has brought back to life the legends from centuries or decades past. The mechanism of folklore cannot be comprehended so easily.

The state that opts for a violent response to any challenge to its legitimacy only manifests its own instability. The clash of culture continues to intensify as ideology is turned into a political force, especially under the current regime that is hyperconscious to any form of dissent.

Work cited:

Suwit Theerasasawat, The Holy Man Rebellion of 1901-02 and the first political chain letter of Thailand,” Silpa Wathanatham Magazine [SILPA-MAG.COM], November 2549 [2006]. 
[สุวิทย์ ธีรศาศวัต, “กบฏผู้มีบุญอีสาน 2444-45 กับจดหมายลูกโซ่ฉบับแรกของเมืองไทย,” ศิลปวัฒนธรรม, ฉบับ พฤศจิกายน 2549]

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