Thailand must recognise ethnicities for reconciliation
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Thailand must recognise ethnicities for reconciliation

Part of a torn-apart banner which calls for separatism was removed from a pedestrian bridge in Phitsanulok last year. (File photo)
Part of a torn-apart banner which calls for separatism was removed from a pedestrian bridge in Phitsanulok last year. (File photo)

Few, if any, would dispute the need for the country to achieve reconciliation. The question is how? One answer is to reconcile the Thai people, so that politicians cannot divide them, not through ultra-nationalism, but respect.

Last week, Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan desperately admitted that he did not know how to realise reconciliation in the draft constitution. His admission was honest, but unacceptable. Some see the need for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to use his absolute power of Section 44 to mandate reconciliation. Such an idea calls into question how authoritarianism can be useful for what should be a participatory, rational process.

One way to understand the divide and find ways to tackle it is to examine the concept of nationalism coined by the late Prof Benedict Anderson, as his "Imagined Community" effectively adds ethnic elements to the perspective.

While it is to some extent true that populism enabled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and later Yingluck to win the hearts of people in the North and the poverty-stricken Northeast, it is indisputable that people in these regions have partly supported the former PM and the Pheu Thai Party out of undercurrents of ethnic identity rippling through Thailand's recent history.

The map of Thailand today is the result of an agreement after World War II when Thailand was forced to return parts of Laos and Cambodia to France in 1946. The tributary states which Thailand ultimately retained were the former Lanna Kingdom of Chiang Mai in the North and the remnants of Lao principalities in the Northeast, as well as four Malay-peopled states in the South. The administrative and political integration of these states was achieved via provincial reforms that began in 1897. Nation-building followed, centring on the Bangkok-based monarchy of Siam, the Buddhist religion via the Sangha Act of 1902, and the promotion of a "Thai" national identity through Central Thai language and literature, especially via the 1921 Education Act.

Through the resulting formal education and administrative system, some ethnicities disappeared. Official censuses no longer counted the Lao or the Lanna ethnic communities separately from "Thai". There was thus a conflation of members of the Thai linguistic family with "Thai" nationality. This situation became more complicated than it was in 1939 when Siam was renamed Thailand and "Thai" became a country adjective, ethnic community, and national identity marker, similar in nature to "British". But ethnic identity, especially when associated with systemic poverty, remains a sensitive issue.

The question of identity in Thailand is now a question of education. Whether it is acceptable to identify a northeasterner as "Thai Lao" relates to knowledge of Thai history. Most university-educated Thais know there are millions of the Lao ethnic community living here. Many in this community describe their own language and culture as Lao in their own villages and are satisfied with a bicultural identity. Other than education, the problem is racial stereotyping. For instance, saying someone has a "Lao face", typically a darker Asian face, suggests racial discrimination, which makes it difficult to publicly include this identity as Thai.

Yet, why should Eurasian children be comfortable stating that they are both Thai and, for example, British, when the children of Lao families from former Lao principalities are uncomfortable stating they are both Thai and Lao? Partial self-determination for the Khon Mueang and Thai Lao, including a recognition of their languages in the education system, would enhance their prestige in society and partially defuse this ethnic issue, which could otherwise be exploited politically and undermine reconciliation attempts.

The key to understanding this situation is to note a favourite question raised by Prime Minister Prayut and some other leaders to those who might disagree with them if "they are Thai". This question, especially when raised with people in the North and Northeast, appears to ask if they share the concept of Thai national identity, and those who answer in the negative would suggest to the military mind the possibility of sedition. Yet, it is the asking of this question which opens a social Pandora's box.

At a more socio-psychological level, Gen Prayut is questioning the ethnic identity of those he asks. It may be acceptable to respond, "I am a northerner, and I am Thai." But, would it be acceptable to him if the response were to be, "I am Khon Mueang, and I am also Thai"? It must be, if Gen Prayut, an experienced soldier, has a complete understanding of the multiple underlying causes of the former communist insurgency in Thailand. This is because protest in the North and Northeast is both an ideological act and an assertion of ethnic identity, rather than purely political.

In fact, the Prayut administration was on the right track when it championed land, property and inheritance taxes in 2014 to bridge the wealth gap as it is the poverty that enabled Thaksin to appeal to a large number of constituents with his populism. 

Reducing the wealth gap is vital. For this, it is necessary that the CDC endorses substantial wealth redistribution via organic legislation in the new Constitution. However, the new constitution must also promote respect for Thailand's ethnic minorities, a more difficult but equally crucial task.

John Draper is Project Officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP), College of Local Administration (COLA), Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, PhD, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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