25 April 2010

Thailand’s diversity

A friend and former colleague has drawn my attention to a letter which was published today in The Bangkok Post (see here).  I am no expert on Thailand or Laos, but I have spent some time in each, including chairing the tri-nation Steering Committee that was responsible for oversighting the construction of the first bridge across the Mekong, the so-called Freedom (Mittraphap) Bridge from Nong Khai to Thanaleng near Vientiane. The comments in the letter resonate with me, and also with the account of the problems in the Malay areas of Southern Thailand given by Australian counter-insurgency expert Dr David Kilcullen in his The Accidental Guerilla, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 210-224.

The letter reads:

Respect Thailand’s diversity

While interesting, Voranai's column last week failed to address that most of the current issues are a legacy of Thailand's ethnic history and colonial expansion and incorporation of subjugated peoples. The myth referenced in the column about "dialects" spoken outside of Bangkok is an example of this.

Anthropologists concur that the Lao spoken in Isan is a mix of dialects from Laos itself, and its predominance in that region is a result of Thailand's incorporation of Lao territory in the last few hundred years. Until the French arrived Laos was a colony of the Thai Kingdom and the Korat plateau was Laotian territory prior to that. Most anthropologists agree it would be more correct to describe Thai as a dialect of Lao. Of course this is offensive to the "dominant" ethnic Thais - one of the root causes of the ills of the country - and the basis of the "Thaiification" government programmes of the 1930s.

It follows that as the people of the Korat plateau and the other side of the Mekong were forcibly incorporated into the Kingdom between 200 and 100 years ago they were considered ``subjects'' of the Thai. My wife, who is from the Khon Kaen area, can trace her ancestry to the Vientiane region over 100 years ago and her ``dialect'' is termed the ``Vientiane dialect'' by anthropologists. All the customs, traditions, food, society and general culture of the Korat plateau derive from Laos, not Thailand, the Thai language or people.

My wife holds a bachelor of science degree from one of the top Bangkok universities. This did not prevent her and her friends from being humiliated by Thai students for their appearance (dark), their accent when speaking Thai or from being insulted as a "Lao" - something my wife is now very proud of. This has naturally led to her voting for TRT in the past and her support for the UDD. So much for the "uneducated rabble" as the Thai elite like to describe the opposition.

From my discussions with people in other regions there are similar views held in other regions by the Lanna in the North (where Thaksin is from), the Malays in the South and the Suai and Khmer in the southeast.

Until the ethnic Thais recognise that the country is a diverse ethnic mix and develop some respect for the significant ``minorities'' (Lao make up around 40% of the population) instead of carrying forward their mythical superiority of language and culture, the divisions will remain and blood with continue to be spilt. Democracy flourishes when such cultural respect is adopted and enshrined in enforceable laws.

(Sgd.) Jezz

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