Identity is a fluid state
Thai authorities are reportedly working with Malaysia to track the movements of people with dual Thai-Malaysian citizenship, for tax and security reasons. The practice isn't new, and concern over dual nationality isn't unique. It is inarguably based on prejudice, as the allegiance of the person with two nationalities is questioned. But allegiance to what?
From a distance of more than 1000km away and with the disadvantage (or rather, advantage) of not being deeply physically or even emotionally involved, I can only infer there is a meaninglessness in making distinctions between national identity in the pluralistic world we live in.
Dual citizenship reflects specific social relations of culture and language, embedded somewhere between Thailand and Malaysia, Islam and Buddhism. In practice, multiple identity cards probably just facilitate border crossings. For people living on the periphery, Thailand is perhaps just a host nation state that is becoming increasingly hostile.
Scholar Benedict Anderson, speaking about Thai politics from an outsider's perspective at a forum in 2011, cited a conversation he had with a taxi driver, who pointed out that Thaksin Shinawatra is Hakka, while Abhisit's family is Hokkien and Vietnamese. The driver then attributed to them stereotypes of their respective ethnicities. What does it mean to be Thai, then?
Anderson, in his most notable work, Imagined Communities, writes that a nation is an "imagined community", socially constructed, delineated and formed by a common written language. China was unified through the written word.
I have always understood the concept of nationalism, in recent history, as intertwined with advocacy for political independence, for self-determination, for self-importance.
A nation state is one that operates under one political and economic system. (Here, the Northeast was always the "island" that separated communism and capitalism.)
I have never been a nationalist. I could describe, and perhaps even reasonably explain, patriotism as a Thai. I can definitely dictate a list of shared "Thai" values, without irony, but that list would be so general, like a demonstration of the Forer effect. I'm fascinated by history and cultural memory.
But personal identity is distinct from national identity.
To be specific, when I say that I'm from Thailand, I really mean I'm from Bangkok, geographically and socially — but not in an exclusionary or superior way. But even that is maybe stretching the point. The sense of belonging and loyalty to a city, to a country, exists on
a purely theoretical level.
My mother is from Chiang Mai. My grandparents were Teochew. They were immigrants. I spent many years in Singapore and many years in the United States. Thailand is the most racially homogeneous country among them. But culturally, I'm not Thai-Thai, I am Chinese-Thai. My home has always been on Sukhumvit Road. My friends live all over the world.
The idea of a singular national identity is, to put it simply, beyond me.
A passport means something at the state level, not on a personal level.
In college I spent a semester studying in the Czech Republic, a country that not only used to be called something else, but also was something else. I was drawn to the country because of my love for Milan Kundera and Kafka, but they were writing of two very different Pragues. In fact, Kafka wrote in German. Kundera was exiled to France. He became French. Kundera wrote extensively about the identity crisis of Central European countries, stuck between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. Countries disappear. New identities are forged through history and culture.
In the summer of 2013, I spent two months working in Frankfurt, living with a German who had just returned from an internship at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Her grandfather was a Nazi, as were most Germans at the time. She felt a responsibility as
a German to confront a past she had nothing to do with. The German identity is complex. What does it even mean to be a West Berliner stuck in the middle of East Germany? What does it mean to be German now?
The nature of these identities is fluid and evolving. They are expansive, not limiting. The borders of Siam shifted many times throughout history. People travel, migrate. So what does it really mean to be Thai, now? What does it mean to hold a Thai passport?
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post.