"Cross-Border Marriages and Transnational Gender Mobility: Experiences of Village Women from Northeastern Thailand"

Dr. Ratana T. Boonmathya (CSEAS visiting research fellow from Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development , Mahidol University at Salaya, Thailand)
16:00-18:30, February 15 (Wed), 2006
E207, 2nd floor of CSEAS East Building

One of very many distinctive contemporary social phenomena that come with globalization is the creation of massive movement and displacement of peoples inside and across their national boundaries. Similar to many other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand shares such common social characteristics of cross-border peoples and transnational gender mobility through employment, education, cross-cultural marriages, women and children trafficking, and so on. Cross-border movement of diverse ethnic groups in Thailand and its neighboring countries in the Mekong region is a unique social phenomenon that has not yet been adequately scholarly addressed.

In the case of Thailand, a recent social phenomenon of cross-cultural marriages of village women from northeastern (or locally known as Isan) Thailand with Western men has been observed. Through their cross-cultural marriages and transnational migration to work and reside abroad, these village women have become displaced persons from their homes of origin. My research thus aims to understand this recent social phenomenon through lived experiences and memories of those village women who have chosen to marry Western men with the use of cultural anthropology approaches. Important research issues are focused on their long-term personal and community histories of displacement, their links between cultures, peoples, and identities transcending national boundaries, as well as their primary concerns, priorities, struggles, and options. My study also intends to investigate how those women have rebuilt their lives, families, and communities in the world of Diaspora. Special reference is given to the Thai-Lao (or Isan-Lao) ethnic group in northeastern Thailand with whom I have long-term relationship through working together in several community development projects and conducting anthropological fieldwork beginning from the late 1980s up to the present time.  

Specifically in the case of village women from Isan who have chosen to marry Western men, I argue that after marriages, the majority have generally moved to live with their husbands and worked overseas. However, they come to visit their parents, relatives and close friends at their homes of origin from time to time. Preliminary intensive field work to collect primary data and information in a village of Roi-Et Province and elsewhere in northeastern Thailand was already conducted from 2004 to 2005. Initial findings confirm that global-local cultural relations have allowed these village women to construct their locality in the nation and worldwide development and adopt some aspects of Western cultures to reflect on their traditional ideology and practices of gender, marriage, and sexuality. The recent phenomenon of cross-cultural marriages of Thai women to Western men has also resulted in a strong sense of those women belonging to and connecting with the locality of their original homes, no matter where they have migrated to and reside. Furthermore, interestingly, they have made use of cultural hybridity comprising aspects of morality deriving from popular Buddhist beliefs and the global culture to reconstruct identities of their changing families at their homes of origin and abroad. In addition, it is argued that rapid economic and social changes following the modernizing process of the country, particularly during the past four decades of national development plans and implementation, have exposed traditions of female migration, gender roles and relations. These changes have also opened up marriage and sexuality into inquiry, and perhaps more importantly, revealed changing practices well ahead of changes in the norms that support traditional practices. Through transnational migratory experiences, those women have created a social space where conventional Thai norms and practices of gender roles and relations, marriage and sexuality, are exposed to scrutiny and negotiation. It would be wrong to view those village women either as passive victims or liberated characters independent from the existing social structures of regional, national, and worldwide development. Rather, they are conscious social actors aspire to attain economic success and family happiness by redefining and reinterpreting their cultural values in light of their own local cultural practices and those introduced by Western thinking of the global context that would serve their current interests and positions, despite their constrained and subordinated positions within the existing system.  

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