BETWEEN SCIENCE AND SPECTACLE: RECONSTRUCTING KAREN PADAUNG WOMEN’S MIGRATION EXPERIENCES AND THEIR LIVES IN NORTHERN THAILAND
In Thailand, Karen Padaung women (KPW) perform in ethnological expositions before a public avid for entertainment. Despite a breadth of scholarship that demonstrates the complex embeddedness of tribal knowledge and practices, there has been very little analysis of KPW’s perspectives on their im/mobility, and minimal effort to elucidate their legal precarity. Having this in the background, the article explores the biographies of 20 KPW with an age ≥ of 18 years. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, between 2019-2020. Discussions explored vulnerabilities to exploitation, as well as emotions, and social values around which KPW’s attitudes to labor were formed. Audio recordings were transcribed verbatim, uploaded in NVivo QDAS, and studied via a hermeneutic phenomenological research method. On the one hand, outcomes suggest that in Thailand, there are fairs where the main objects on display are real people, and where available protection for rights is extremely volatile. On the other hand, they show that such sites offer destitute households a paid opportunity to retain traditional customs. The paper ends by stressing that the challenges are numerous, albeit not inevitable. Future studies should look at how KPW can resist being pigeon-holed into a condition of social nakedness. Besides, they need to assess the strategies adopted by Thailand to deploy essentialist rhetoric about a homogeneous national community to regiment historically heterogeneous populations.
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