UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

In the footsteps of a demon king : an ethnography of Ramakien's Totsakan within Bangkok, Thailand GermAnn, Fraser K.


This dissertation is an ethnography of a demon king named Totsakan – a fictional character from one of Thailand’s classic literary texts: Ramakien. Based on two and a half years in Bangkok, Thailand – just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – this dissertation explores his nature and significance as understood by Thais. The bulk of data collected comes from semi-structured, open ended interviews with Thais who possessed intimate knowledge of the demon king. Among them were professors and grad students of Thai literature; artists, directors, and performers who used the demon within their projects; as well as monks, heritage officials, and product designers. Through these interviews two versions of Totsakan emerged. The first demon is the way he is conventionally understood: a villain, a brute who fights futilely for what he misguidedly desires, thus serving as a warning to all who would become like him. The insights gained from this inquiry ultimately reflect a Thai Buddhist worldview and show how through this worldview Totsakan’s example helps shape Thai identities and the political realities of Thailand, past and present. The second demon, however, is a hero, a romantic who fights tragically for what he truly loves – thus serving as a character to emulate. Such views flipped the conventional understanding of Totsakan and drew into question the future of Thai traditions, identities, and political realities. The two versions of Totsakan in effect revealed a generational divide, a growing conflict about what Thai culture – and the identity it provided Thais (called Thainess) – should look like. This conflict is further contextualized through my personal experiences within the field, as well as the political and social events that were impacting Thailand at the time of my research (January 2017 – June 2019): a time of transition, marked by political and monarchical uncertainties. Such uncertainties were reflected in my searching for the demon, as many Thais I interviewed read political and social realities through their understanding of him. What this ethnography offers is a complex snapshot of those realities as seen through the demon.

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