Part II: The History of the Saktina System 

Samaidaeng Thungdin

In Part 1 of this series, we examined the initial thesis of Jit Phumisak’s seminal work, The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today. In the first section of the book, Jit outlines the characteristics of the international Saktina mode of production and its relationship to the emergence of bourgeois capitalism. Jit’s initial thesis is an international one, however deeper into his unfinished text it becomes increasingly Thai-centric. Whether that is due to lack of time on the author’s part, or his intention we do not know. However, what is evident is the robust nature of his analysis which is seemingly applicable to both Thai and international contexts. 

In this second article, we will outline the different periods in Tai history, beginning in the ‘primitive communism era’ and concluding in the formation of the Saktina state, examining how they developed through Jit’s understanding of historical materialism.

The Origins of the Saktina System in Thailand

Jit begins this section by referencing a problem with classical Thai historiography. In that, there is a dearth of written histories that detail information outside of the exploits of the ruling class. In this specific case, he refers to how scholars are even unaware of the exact moment that the Saktina period originated, as most written history from this time (the Sukhothai period) was generally dedicated to the Monarch’s present affairs or the construction of temples (wats) rather than any historical texts that could date the development of the Saktina system.

He then outlines the uncertainty surrounding the historical consensus on the origins of Tai people within the state, known as the ‘Nanchao origin’ and its relationship to the Sukhothai kingdom. Jit opts to disregard the Nanchao question altogether and to focus squarely on the Sukhothai era.

Tai Society and the Slave System 

Jit argues that the Tai Saktina system developed from the Tai Slave system, as opposed to the ‘Saktina Scholars’ who attempt to disprove the existence of explicit institutional slavery within the Saktina system. Their key evidence seems to be the citation of the word ‘Tai’ (the ethnic group) in relation to the potentially unrelated word ‘Thay’ (meaning freeman) insisting there was an abundance of ‘freemen’ when according to Jit there was not. 

Providing counter-evidence, Jit, an astute linguist, cites the use of language in the famous Ramkamhaeng inscription as clear proof of the existence of slavery within the Saktina system. Specifically, in the law of inheritance, upon a father’s death, their property is transferred to their children. The examples of belongings include a reference to the term ‘phraifa khathai’. Jit unpacks these terms to mean ‘serfs that belong to lords’ (phraifai), and ‘slaves that belong to freemen’ (khathai). Further, he cites a Sukhothai law on theft which refers to the violation of property, including ‘kha’ (slave). There are several more linguistic citations from legal texts presented as extensive evidence of Saktina slavery. Even in the inscriptions, there are references to not killing or beating captured slaves. Jit suggests the reason vestiges of the slave system persisted linguistically into Thai language was due to elements of the slave system persisting socially.

The Emergence of Tai Societies – According to Jit

Following the Marxist conception of history, Jit briefly outlines the conditions of ‘primitive communes’ or ‘primitive communism’. Jit characterised primitive communism as groups of people organised into clans that entered into conflict with other clans in order to acquire productive land (assumingly these were semi-nomadic/semi-agricultural peoples). Execution or forced exile of captured enemies was the norm, however, as these clans and their lands grew in size, they began subjugating captive populations to work their lands instead. From this arose a distinct class-based society, and the slave system. In place of clans fighting clans, slavemasters now fought each other over control of productive forces, which now includes slave labour.

In Jit’s chronology, the Saktina system already existed by the Sukhothai period which suggests it came into existence prior to or in the very early days of the establishment of the Sukhothai kingdom.

To more deeply understand the coming together of Tai people into a Saktina system Jit examines the different trajectories of Tai societies in several different regions and their later coalescence. 

Tais in Tonkin

The Tonkin (in the north of modern Vietnam) system of organisation did not allow for Tais to own land. Ownership of land was centralised in the hands of the chief of the Muang, it was his job to distribute land to the community. New plots of land were allowed to be settled, but only with the permission of the chief. Jit argues the centralisation of land into the hands of the chief was not so that the chief may economically exploit those who worked it, but rather for the purpose of social organisation via a land-based social hierarchy. Reallocation of land tended to be done based on changes to the village’s population as well as on the size of the household and the household’s productive capacity. This land-based social hierarchy is similar to the Saktina system, but those who worked the plots did not pay rent nor a tax in kind. This suggests different economic relations, but similar political/social relations. 

Jit argues these agricultural collectives resemble primitive communal forms of social organisation congruent with Marxist theory. He further writes that over time, the chiefs used to work their land until changes in the village’s dynamics called for increased administrative and protective work which the chief and his men would need to perform instead of working their lands. They then got other villagers to work the chief’s land and over time this created systems of inheritance and private property.

Tais in Laos

For Tais in the Huaphan region of Laos (now Houaphanh), land was allocated and redistributed as necessary when families split, new people joined the community, or plots of land began to return insufficient yields. There was no regular redistribution, which allowed for plots of land to be under the control of one family for extended periods of time and eventually passed down, creating private property and inheritance. Not all land was involved in redistribution as well. There was a distinction between housed and arable land. Housed land was privately owned,  inherited and could be bought and sold, whereas arable land was part of the redistributive process. 

If a family lost its capacity to produce, its land would be reallocated to keep the land productive. Hence, influential families could use rented or slave labour to work the land and would therefore be considered as worthy recipients of the unused arable land, this encouraged the acquisition of slaves, which would go on to encourage new conflicts with other slavemasters and slave-based states.

The Nineteen Chaofa 

Due to external threats from other states, which Jit described as ‘Chinese attacks’ (likely raiders from the north), Tais pushed into already occupied lands with indigenous populations and established states like the Khmer, Burmans, and Mon. This resulted in conflict and the taking of slaves. One key example is the settlement of contemporary Shan areas. They formed nineteen small clans that are assumed to have followed a primitive communal model. These clans eventually united into a federation known as the Nineteen Chaofa (or the Nineteen Chiefs). This federation was a slave master’s democracy, akin to Athenian democracy, as by this time conflict had led to the rise of the institution of slavery. The masters then used their slaves to expand their domains until eventually clashing with other nearby states.

Eventually, the Nineteen Chaofa slave master democracy split up and Tais ventured in different directions, including towards Assam, which is the understood origin of the Ahom people. The Ahom people eventually became part of the Indian sphere of influence and the Monarch which eventually developed in the region, whereas other Tais moving to Tonkin did not meet much resistance upon arrival, but eventually, developments in their agricultural collective system resulted in the creation of a slave system.

Following the Mekong and the Ping

Tais that moved along the Mekong into Lanna fought indigenous populations as well as the dominant Khmer presence. This resulted in the establishment of a slave state (the 12 Thai Lords) which later went on to become the Saktina state of the Lanna Kingdom.

Those that moved down the Ping river basin came into conflict with the indigenous Lawa, and the dominant Mon rulers of Lamphun. They also wound up in conflict with the Khmer state and many Tais were taken captive as slaves. In Khmer documentation, the term ‘sayam’ is used to refer to slaves taken from Tai populations. 

Regardless of the different ways in which slave and then Saktina systems arose, according to Jit, conquests and external conflict were the general cause that pushed primitive agricultural collectives into becoming slave states, as the autonomous production made possible by slave-owning families facilitated the growth of slave states over time. Nevertheless, remnants of the communal system persisted, including calling chiefs ‘father’ (pho), as and the chief of the state was then called ‘phokhun’, whilst slaves were called ‘lukkun’, ‘children’. ‘Ku’ and ‘mung’, which today are used as the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ became disliked by the ruling class and were looked down upon as being low-class. However, Jit suggests that the origin of these terms was in a class-less and fairly egalitarian context, which might lend credence to the idea that in order to enforce a strict class-oriented society, language that defied class had to be assimilated (classed). 

The Slave System

The slave mode of production was characterised by the class division of slaves and slave masters. Slaves were treated as the private property of slave masters and were essentially the primary means of production, with land being a secondary means of production. The ability to own slaves stripped slaves of their personhood, reducing them into “talking tools”. Due to the ownership of slaves as property and the situating of slaves as the primary means of production, slaves were treated as property in both their personal and productive lives. 

Jit identifies the relationship between power and the ownership of slaves, much like during the Saktina period, the greater the proportion of the means of production a family had, the greater their influence and power in state and community affairs. Slave masters were able to spend more time focusing on non-material pursuits such as philosophy, politics, cultural endeavours and theology whilst their slaves worked and created wealth for their masters. 

Slavery came into existence as a means to expand productive forces. As mentioned, rather than killing captives of war, enslaving them was far more materially beneficial for victors as they needed people to tend to their newly conquered lands, by being put to work to generate income for the slave masters. The antagonistic friction between slaves and slave masters eventually reached a point where slaves became unproductive as a form of rebellion against their lack of political rights. Even with the advent of Athenian-style democracy, there was no power given to slaves due to their non-personhood, this is why Jit refers to certain societies as ‘slave master democracies’. 

The goal of the enslaved masses was to be recognised as a person by the slave master class. One small concession was that slaves were now able to own personal property, however, they did not enjoy the ownership of private property (which is what defined ‘personhood’). This was one small concession granted by the slave masters to ensure their workers maintain material productivity.

Jit identifies another factor for the fall of the European slave systems as the large scale barbarian invasions in Europe. He then draws a parallel between this and the destruction of the Khmer empire in 1352 AD. After the expansion of the Khmer empire to its greatest extent in that year. The conflict between the Khmer slaves and slave masters grew to the point that when the Tai armies attacked, the Khmer slaves had no enthusiasm for defending the lands of their masters. This lack of enthusiasm was seemingly evident across all slave societies, leading to the eventual downfall of many slave states. In some cases, invading armies understood the antagonism between the slaves and their masters and worked to spread sentiment that would make the slaves more open to joining the invading army’s efforts (Jit refers to this specifically in the Tai-Khmer context). 

Slaves of a former empire were then absorbed as slaves of a different empire. They had a new master and would once again seek to free themselves, even, once again, working with other empires that were bound to assimilate these slaves yet again for themselves. This is demonstrative of the cyclical nature of slave society. 

Jit argues that slave/master antagonisms eventually reached critical mass, due in part to the constant changing of masters which ultimately led to reduced production and a challenge to the authority of the masters. This allowed some slaves to break away from their bonds, becoming freemen. However, due to the constant threat of invaders, who would re-enslave the now freemen, these peasants had to turn to the former slave masters and negotiate their protection. 

Their former lords had defensive structures and bands of armed fighters, which they used to protect the freemen in exchange for produce. This established an exploitative relationship based on a tax-in-kind. In addition to taxation, freemen were also widely conscripted into the lords’ armies. This demonstrates that even though it was the lord who was ostensibly protecting the freemen, the lord was just a central figure for organisation and leadership.

Due to this new exploitative co-dependent relationship, freemen soon became tied to the lands they worked, creating the serf class, they were unable to leave or to work anywhere other than the land they were tied to. Serfs, unlike slaves, possessed their own personal property and could accumulate produce (with which they paid their tax).

Hence, via a combination of ‘rewards’ in the form of parcels of land (small holdings) and the ownership of their own tools as well as the eventual granting of ‘personhood’ to slaves, the phrai & lek (serf) class began to come into existence. The condition stipulated by the ruling class for allowing the recognition of ‘personhood’ was the inability to move from the parcel of land which the now-serf was given. Simultaneously the former slave masters became the new landlord class as they collected taxes and tributes from their former slaves, this eventually led to the prominence of the new emergent Saktina system over the old slave system.

Peasant serf slave diagram

Transition to Saktina

Following a typical Marxist interpretation of history, productive systems do not cease to exist and begin out of nowhere, they transition into each other. Jit agrees with this in his assertion that the Saktina mode of production is born out of the slave mode of production. Jit compares the slave mode of production with the Saktina mode of production by briefly reiterating some of the points from previous sections (which can be found in the previous article). 

One of the other factors that led to the creation of the Saktina hierarchy was the paranoia of opportunism, in the sense that if a moderate-sized ruling master did not acquire the protection of a bigger ruling master, then another ruling master would try and assimilate them into their own realms — this continues the theme of dependence in the Saktina system. 

Earlier in the Saktina period, the larger ruling masters (known as Suzerains) would distribute land to smaller ruling masters (Vassals) to ensure the latter’s loyalty to the former. This land would then be distributed by the vassals to the peasants and serfs who depended upon him for their protection. Independent peasants (arguably the petit-bourgeoisie of the time) would either become ruined by debt and lose either their independence or land, would gain favour with their lords and receive more land, eventually needing to rent out their own lands, as they became landlords in their own right. Over time, the number of landlords grew, and as such, land was subdivided into smaller parcels. As parcels of land became progressively smaller, their owners ranked lower in the Saktina hierarchy, reducing them from lords to lesser noblemen. Jit uses the example of Portuguese colonialism in Brazil and how 13 original tracts of land eventually became smaller and smaller until there were hundreds of landlords in any one of these original 13 tributary tracts of land.

Through a series of traditions and customs, the relationship between the ownership of land and power was further reinforced as the vassal rulers continued to pledge their allegiance to the Monarchs in exchange for their own tracts of land which they could control— establishing a cultural element to the Saktina system, developing what was essentially a Saktina ideology

In addition to the distribution of land to vassals, the Monarch was also the highest form of regulatory and legal authority, hence they were the grand administrator of justice when vassal lords could not resolve issues themselves. Vassal lords then became the Monarch’s administrators, working in internal and external affairs, fighting wars, and even paying the Monarch’s gold and silver so as to:

  • Gather a sufficient ransom to return a captured monarch
  • Send tributes when the Monarch’s sons became knights
  • Pay tributes when the Monarch’s daughters were married

All of which was afforded by further exploitation of the peasantry on the part of the vassal lords.

The feudal age had many ‘codes’ which centred around common themes such as normative gender roles, militarism and military might, religion and what is essentially nationalism prior to the formation of the nation-state. Examples include Bushido, Chivalry, and Siam’s own ‘code of the warlords’ or ‘code of the tiger-soldiers’. 

One contradictory aspect to the condition of the serf is their increased freedoms (as compared to their condition under slave society). Despite their supposed increase in freedoms, these new serf societies were more materially productive than the former slave societies, allowing for the rate of exploitation to remain consistent or even increase. Jit uses the example of taxation in pre-1789 France where for every 100 francs earned by a peasant, only 19 of those were retained by the peasant as the rest went towards taxes, tithes, and to pay off debts. Jit then turns to an Asian example of 17th century Japan where their feudal system operated almost identically in terms of the centralisation in the hands of a few big landlords with their subordinate lords granting smaller parcels of lands to peasants in exchange for percentages of their yields as well as rent and other forms of tax and exploitation. 

Jit summarises much of his analysis with a few key points on the Saktina system:

  1. The early days of the Saktina system emancipated the slaves into better social positions (making them freemen), however, this position was still situated at the bottom of the class hierarchy. 
  2. The height of advances in production during the Saktina age were greater than any preceding heights, allowing for advanced productive technologies, cooperative labour within the household in both agriculture and handicrafts, a system of independent production which increased the level of societies productivity, and the development of those handicrafts and trade exchanges which marked the transition to the capitalist system.
  3. The final stage of development in the Saktina system brought stagnation in production and backwardness in agriculture, and class exploitation caused loss and suffering to people’s welfare.

Fundamentally The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today is an attempt at painting a ‘big history’ picture of human civilization from a historical materialist perspective. Considering the resources Jit had at the time, and the external pressures on him, the book is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment. Throughout the work, which again is incomplete, Jit constantly makes reference to vestiges (elements of today’s society that still remain from past structures). These vestiges, systems and mechanisms date back to the birth of mankind, through the pre-Saktina age and into the current global capitalist structure. As such, today, we still live with vestiges of the slave system as well as Saktina.