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Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta

Thai slum children integral for social transformation

Doctor Giuseppe Bolotta is an Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Department of Asian and North African Studies at the Ca Foscari University of Venice.

He is also a Research Associate of the Asia Research Institute, Religion and Globalization Cluster at the National University of Singapore. His research interests focus on the history and cultural politics of childhood and youth in Thailand; development, religion, and humanitarianism in Southeast Asia; transnational governance of childhood and the politics of children’s rights in the global South.

His book, “Belittled Citizens: The Cultural Politics of Childhood and Bangkok’s Margins”, published in 2021, explores the intersection between Thai politics, urban poverty, religion, and global humanitarisnim from the perspective of children born in the slums of Bangkok.

His rich ethnography examines how slum children define themselves – and are defined by others – in relation to a range of institutions, including schools, Christian NGOs, Buddhist temples, and international aid organizations, offering startling new insights into the cultural politics that shape marginalized children’s life in Bangkok.

What brought you to study children in Bangkok?

I'm an anthropologist specializing in the study of children and young people’s cultures in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand. An important question for me is thus: What does childhood mean in a specific cultural context, in this case Thailand? And, if we restrict the focus, and consider the diverse social milieu my research interlocutors grow up. And the question would be: What does childhood mean in contexts as diverse as urban slums, Buddhist temples, Catholic charities, and children’s rights organizations — that is to say, in the various living environments within which the children I have researched about spend their everyday lives?

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My research is animated by such questions, and the answers to such questions are strikingly different. The meanings of childhood, its temporal extension, and the way children are educated by adults and within schools vary significantly across cultures and time, and space.

Prior to starting my Ph.D. in anthropology in 2010, I worked as a clinical psychologist in Italy. I was also a member of a humanitarian organization, which promotes children's rights in several countries of the global south, including Thailand. It is through this NGO that I initially met the protagonists of my book, a group of children who were born in Bangkok slum areas. This was in 2008. This short and first volunteering experience in Bangkok is the origin of my choice to start a Ph.D. in anthropology and devote time to the study of these children's everyday lives: a major turning point in both my personal and professional projects.

As part of my Ph.D. in anthropology, I lived with the children in slums, schools, Buddhist temples, Catholic charities, and in the venues of state and international organizations. In exploring this diverse institutional landscape, my research reveals the extent to which the futurity of childhood becomes a site of political contention. Children are tomorrow's citizens. Institutions aimed at addressing child poverty thus translate different future-oriented agendas into their child-focused educational projects, and these may at times be in conflict. The Thai state, Buddhist organizations, Catholic missionaries, and Western NGOs, do not look at slum children in Bangkok in the same way. All these organizations are attempting to define society's future by nurturing/disciplining these children's minds and bodies in surprisingly contrasting ways, and according to conflicting cultural ideologies of childhood. My book is about these complex processes. It also details how poor children in Bangkok form their sense of self through these multiple cultural contexts and political processes.

What is life like for children in Bangkok's slums?

First, let's speak about Bangkok. It is one of Southeast Asia's most important megacities with some 11 million people. The city also houses roughly 50 percent of the country's poor.

The city is a regional force in finance and business. It is an international hub for transport and historically is the Buddhist nation's political capital as well as religious, and economic center. In the last decades of the 20th century, Bangkok experienced the fastest economic growth in the world. As it often happens, that growth also brought about increasing economic inequalities, both within the city and between the capital and the rest of the country.

Peasants from Thailand's rural areas began moving to the capital, seeking job opportunities in the ever-expanding economy of the big city. In a country where the urban-rural gap widened, for many peasant migrants to the capital settling in Bangkok slums was the only option.

Today we have about 2,000 slums in Bangkok with a total population of more than 2 million, which makes up approximately 20 percent of the entire population of the inner core of the city. Children in the slums experience broad social disadvantages because of their families' extreme poverty, overcrowding, poor water and sanitation, substandard housing, limited access to basic health and education services, and other hardships.

Moreover, as I describe in my book, the slum children in Bangkok experience multiple forms of discrimination. They are publicly described as the nemesis of the so-called ‘good Thai child’, the obedient child from upper-middle-class families and the embodiment of Thainess — the Thai national identity.

Slums are therefore publicly described as places of degradation and criminality and a threat to urban and national security.

The demonization of the city's slums — places that are often inaccessible to systematic state surveillance — carries a negative image that serves to justify massive eviction campaigns that are officially rationalized as measures to fight criminality and restore the beauty of cities, in Thailand as elsewhere in the global South.

In this context, slum children occupy a special, often ambivalent place because they are depicted either as victims or as a danger to society. In Thai public discourses, slum children are associated with drug abuse, uncontrolled sexuality, criminal behavior, and gangs. It follows that if slum children are not protected from negative influences, they are likely to become immoral and dangerous citizens. Besides, or perhaps precisely because of this, public authorities consider them insufficiently Thai.

Now, despite these accounts of slum children’s alleged unhappiness or dangerous nature, I found that many poor children are perfectly comfortable in the slum environment, which, despite its material poverty, presented a level of social cohesion and internal social solidarity that the outside world of the metropolis lacked somehow.

Notwithstanding, several agencies look at these kids as ideal targets of humanitarian or corrective intervention. Especially since the seventies, with the emergence of a global discourse focused on children’s rights, international NGOs, Christian charities, and Buddhist monasteries have been addressing child vulnerability in the slums giving shape to what I describe as a moral economy of childhood, which has transformed poor children's everyday life in the Thai capital in significant ways.

What is the main argument of your book?

That’s a complicated question. There are several studies that have described the slums of Bangkok as closed communities of rural to urban migrants. My work shows how since the seventies, the transnational discourse of children's rights has transformed the landscape of urban poor in Bangkok into what I describe as a cosmopolitan child-centered field of power. My book analyses this child-focused moral arena and seeks to investigate its impact on children’s development and everyday lives.

The children I met in the slums of Bangkok were all Buddhist. But I met them in a Catholic charity run by Western Missionaries, the Saint Jacob Center. More strikingly, they were simultaneously supported by several, both local and international secular aid organizations, including religious organizations, Christian and Buddhist — all of these organizations were active in the slums, formally at the service of children’s rights.

The 1970s' emergence of children’s rights has thus given organizations of this kind priority access to the capital's poorest districts, transforming city slums into religious and economic arenas of humanitarian intervention. Although these organizations are all formally devoted to the promotion of children’s rights, in each of these aid agencies, however, children are interpreted and educated differently by adults, according to conflicting ideas of what childhood, parenthood, morality, and society are and should be.

As descendants of migrants from Thailand's rural provinces and ethnic minority regions, slum children in Bangkok embody non-Thai behavior and are stigmatized by public authorities as disobedient, dangerous, and problematic kids. On the other hand, the educational projects that these children are encountering in Buddhist foundations, Catholic charities, and Western NGOs may well differ from the Thai state’s stigmatizing approach.

In this plural context, childhood can be conceptualized in different ways, which has also profound political implications insofar as these alternative educational projects can challenge the Thai state's attempt to turn poor kids into good Thai children and loyal citizens.

Slum children in Bangkok experience these social settings and the pedagogies they are confronted with, in different ways. These in turn reflect a range of institutional arrangements, which are the micro-level outcomes of broader national, global, social, political, religious, and economic processes.

In this book, I analyzed some of these processes — such as the development of the urban poor in Bangkok, the emergence of Thai socially engaged Buddhism, the unnoticed activism of Christian organizations in Thai marginal contexts, and the increasing militarization of Thai schooling — through the lens of childhood.

I show how attention to children, who are typically excluded from national politics and become invisible in most political analyses, has important potential for producing fresh understandings of Thailand’s societal transformations.

How different is the Catholic missionary’s case in the environment of Bangkok?

Together with Buddhist temples and foundations, Catholic and Christian NGOs such as the Saint Jacob Center are at the forefront of humanitarian endeavors to address poor children's marginality in Bangkok. Under the public radar, formally secular children's rights organizations in Thailand are often headed by Christian missionaries.

These organizations very often play a significant role in refining public notions of childhood, parenthood, poverty, and ethnicity from a religious perspective. The Saint Jacob Center, the Catholic NGO I have conducted research in Bangkok, is run by Western missionaries and is headed by Father Nicola, an Italian priest, who has been living in Thailand since 1978.

Nicola belongs to a new generation of missionaries who were sent to Thailand after the Second Vatican Council to undertake charity work and have become leaders of official secular humanitarian organizations. Nicola is quite an important character in my book. He has been influenced by liberation theology and for this reason, his approach is quite in contrast with the hyper-conservative outlook of the Thai Catholic Church.

Why do you call the Thai Church hyper-conservative?

In order to better understand the Saint Jacob’s distinct position within the Thai Catholic Church, we need to know a bit more about the Thai Church itself. The Thai Catholic Church can be largely described as a pro-monarchical and capitalist institution running prestigious hospitals and private schools that, paradoxically, propagandize Buddhist Thainess.

The close historical link between the Vatican and the Thai monarchy has led to Catholicism being locally reconfigured according to elite royalist Buddhist culture.

I describe this process as a Thai-fication of the Gospels, and I argue that this Thai-fication of Catholicism has produced quite a unique Asian reconfiguration of Catholic faith and practice, which sees Jesus, the Thai nation, and its Buddhist king brought together in an awkward but sacred patchwork.

Christians number less than 1 percent of the Thai population. While the number of Thai converts to Christianity has been minimal for centuries, Christianity in general, and Catholicism specifically, have been critical to the establishment of many of Thailand's most prestigious schools, universities, and state-of-the-art medical facilities. These are all hyper-remunerative enterprises that cater to the upper middle class of the kingdoms, namely its Buddhist elites.

Images depicting the king are displayed on all Catholic buildings, whether churches, hospitals, schools, or universities. And, Catholic liturgy includes prayers in praise of the king, who is publicly portrayed in Thailand as the embodiment of the Buddhist Dharma. This partly explains why Catholics, unlike separatist Muslims in the deep South, haven't suffered continuous state repression in the country.

Does the missionary’s work in the slum challenge this model?

The Thai Catholic Church’s Catholicism is strikingly at odds with the Church of the Poor that is envisioned by Nicola, and several (formally secular) Christian aid agencies in Thailand. The latter work particularly in refugee camps, urban slums and maritime sites of migrant work and human trafficking — often far from Thai clerical authorities’ watchful control.

Nicola, during a conversation, argued that the inculturation of Catholicism, that is, the accommodation of Catholic faith and practice to the local culture of Thailand should have been carried out in the context of Thailand's marginalized ethnic minority cultures, rather than following the militarized and royal construct of Buddhist Thainess, which the Thai Catholic Church historically put forward.

In Nicola’s view, poor children are the prime representatives of the Lord. Poor children, in turn, might find in Nicola an alternative model to emulate, a different adult model with respect to what they encounter in state schools or Buddhist temples.

Most school teachers look at slum children as dirty, disobedient and not-Thai-enough citizens, who threaten national stability. Many conservative Buddhist monks interpret children's socio-economic marginalization in terms of their supposedly poor karmic structure. Royalist Thai clergy, likewise, think of them as especially sinful.

On the other hand, Nicola thought of them as God's favorite children, precisely because they are considered the last in society. This is a political theology of childhood that works against the idea of both the Buddhist state and Thai royalist Catholicism, and that has parallels with socially engaged Buddhism’s critical view of the Thai Sangha.

It is indeed interesting to observe that Nicola found unexpected allies in socially-engaged Buddhist monks, who undertake development work in Bangkok slums and are critical toward classical Thainess and the state’s historical manipulation of Buddhism for political purposes.

What has been the impact of this research on your faith?

As an anthropologist, I look at faith and religion in scientific terms. It is important to keep in mind that religion in Thailand is a poly-cultural phenomenon. As scholar Peter Jackson has correctly observed: “Religion is a complex of multiple, partly discrete, yet also intersecting and hierarchically organized, ritual belief systems.”

This multiplicity also shapes Catholicism in Thailand. For example, it's not unusual to see Catholics creating household altars at home, where they worship icons of Jesus alongside Chinese and Hindu gods, Buddhist monks, and Thai kings. This is a common practice in Thai popular religion.  

Rather than Catholicism, it is thus more appropriate to speak about “Catholcisms”, in the plural.  Not only Thai Catholicism is different from, say, Italian Catholicism, but within Thai Catholicism itself it is possible to recognize multiple understandings of the Gospel as well as conflicting practices of faith.

In Thailand as in other parts of Asia, the inculturation of Christianity reproduced local power relations. Thai Catholicism reflects Buddhist, royalist, and elitist perspectives on salvation.  On the other hand, a different kind of Christianity was picked up in connection with global humanitarianism, and this latter might challenge institutionalized forms of Asian Christianity.

The Thai-fication of the Gospels, as I described it in my book, is in fact being challenged by new actors on the fringes of the local Catholic movement, especially in the NGO sector, which is formally secular. The Saint Jacob Centre is a good example of this.

* This is an edited version of a podcast interview that appeared on the webpage of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). The initiative, hosted by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a global network of social scientists who develop new research projects to analyze live realities and the social contribution of Asian Catholics. It aims to deepen and promote academic research on Catholic life in contemporary Asia.

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