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Multiculturism in Thailand?
Cultural and Regional Resurgence in a Diverse Kingdom

By Patrick Jory

For the last hundred years, Thai governments have consistently stressed the homogeneity of the peoples of Thailand. Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors, modern Thailand has never had an official discourse on multiculturalism. The predominant government policy towards cultural diversity has been one of assimilation. The result has been that both domestically and internationally, Thailand is perceived as Southeast Asia's most ethnically homogeneous nation. Yet Thailand has always been an ethnically diverse place, and in recent years has experienced a resurgence in expressions of ethnic culture and identity. What form is this resurgence taking, and why is it occurring?
Regional Revival

Cultural diversity in Thailand is generally represented by the Thai government in regional terms. Thailand is officially divided into central Thailand, northern Thailand, northeastern Thailand, and southern Thailand. Among the peoples of these four regions there is great linguistic and cultural diversity, but the official rhetoric has been that they are all "Thai"-where "Thai" is an ethnically and culturally loaded term. Indeed, from the turn of the century the Thai government has firmly discouraged use of the ethnic labels "Lao," "Khmer," "Malay," for Thailand's peoples in favor of the one category "Thai."

With the growth of regional tertiary education in recent decades a renewed interest has emerged in the history, language, literature, and culture of Thailand's varied regions. Much of this work gives a different perspective to the dominant discourse of Thai history and Thai culture as expressed by the bureaucracy, the military, and nationalistic scholars. For example, in 1996 the International Thai Studies Conference was held in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, in commemoration of the city's 700th anniversary. The conference included panels on the history of "Lanna" (the old kingdom of which Chiang Mai was the capital) and the culture of the Yuan people of the region, with little reference to the official narratives of Thai history or to the usual Bangkok-centric notion of Thai identity.

Cultural resurgence among Thailand's ethnic minorities is most visible in the area of popular culture. The ethnic Lao culture of the northeast has witnessed a revival in the form of commercialized popular music. Widely heard on Thailand's radio stations today, Mor Lam is a traditional music style rooted in Lao musical traditions and sung in Lao. Mor Lam has undergone a transformation from its folk music origins into a commercialized folk-rock genre Mor Lam stars appear on music shows broadcast on national television, and Mor Lam cassette tapes are sold all over the country. Kandrum music, derived from the ethnic Khmer on Thailand's border with Cambodia, has undergone a similar transformation, and there has even been a revival of popular music sung in the dialect of the South.

The ethnic Lao of northeastern Thailand have found cultural empowerment through other means as well. Lao/Isan food is very popular all over the country. In the traffic jams of Bangkok, trucks sport bumper stickers saying, "I'm glad that the car driver behind me is also Lao"-"Lao" referring to the ethnic Lao of northeastern Thailand. The mere fact that the ethnic label "Lao" is being increasingly used as a label of self-identification is significant; in the not-so-distant past, when social discrimination against northeasterners was widespread, "Lao" was virtually a pejorative term.

The use of regional dialects in Thailand is much more open now than in the past. In some nationally broadcast TV dramas and in an increasing number of TV and radio advertisements characters speak in their local dialect, a practice unheard of two decades ago. Up until recently, Thai children were actually encouraged to lose their local dialects, which were seen as a sign of unsophistication and low status. Now local dialects are increasingly valued as symbols of regional identity. In the south, where pride in the local dialect is perhaps most fierce, messages on roadside billboards and outside department stores are spelled in such a way as to imitate the southern Thai dialect. On regional state-controlled TV stations there is now some air-time set aside for broadcasts in the local dialect, and radio stations are energetically following suit.

Reappearance of Chinese Identity
As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the ethnic Chinese have long posed a special problem for national integration in Thailand, given their commercial influence and connections with mainland China. Until recently a common belief held that the Chinese in Thailand were well assimilated into Thai society-that is, they had become Thai. Over the past five to ten years, however, Chinese cultural expression in Thailand has been not only tolerated but celebrated, particularly in popular culture. In addition to the imported Chinese TV shows that have remained consistently popular in Thailand, Thai TV production companies are making soap operas about the hardships and successes of ethnic Chinese who have migrated to Thailand over the last 200 years. These dramas, such as the popular Lort Lai Mangkorn and Rattanakosin, are broadcast at prime time slots in the evening and attract some of the largest audiences in Thai TV history.

More and more people of Chinese descent are "coming out" with regard to their ancestry. Thai business magazines laud the achievements of Thailand's Sino-Thai businessmen. In the 1996 national elections certain candidates of Chinese descent actually used their Chinese names in areas with heavy concentrations of ethnic Chinese (all Chinese in Thailand must have a Thai name). Some of these candidates even used the teo chiu Chinese dialect in their campaign speeches. On the political scene, three out of the last four Prime Ministers have been of Chinese descent, and the same is true of at least two of the last three governors of Bangkok. The Chinese language is being reintroduced into Thailand's schools and universities after a long period of official discouragement and lack of interest. In fashion, cuisine, popular literature, business culture, and especially in popular religion, one can observe increasing Chinese influence.
Malay Muslim Identity

In the Malay Muslim region in southern Thailand expressions of Islamic identity are also increasing. The region hardest for the Thai government to integrate, the south has been the scene of a number of violent secessionist movements, particularly between the 1960s and the 1980s. But in the last decade these movements have lost much of their momentum as a result of improved diplomatic and economic relations with neighboring Malaysia. Past secessionist tendencies had partly resulted from the government's cultural insensitivity regarding the Malay-speaking regions. For example, when the Thai government built a mosque in the provincial capital Pattani in the 1980s, it erected in the courtyard a slab in the design of a Buddhist Dharma wheel commemorating the government's generosity. Southern Thailand, however, like neighboring Malaysia, has experienced an Islamic revival in recent years, and the government, recognizing this, has become more attentive to the cultural and religious wishes of the community. The government has reintroduced Malay language into government schools, although private Islamic schools remain more popular than free government schools at the secondary level.

The Politics and Economics of Ethnic Resurgence

What is fueling Thailand's ethnic resurgence? During the Cold War expressions of ethnic distinctiveness outside of the state-defined notion of Thai national identity were seen by the military and bureaucracy as potential threats to national security. Undoubtedly, the end of this period and the subsequent reduced threat to Thailand's national security have been key reasons behind the relaxation of the government's assimilationist policies.

Thailand's rapid economic development since the 1960s has also reduced the perceived threat that cultural diversity posed to national unity and security. Minorities are more willing to identify with the Thai nation-state because they have more to gain economically. With regional development, however, there has also been a growing emphasis on increasing regional economic ties, which is resulting in greater contact between minorities and their ethnic kin across the border. The economic triangle between southern Thailand, northern Malaysia, and Sumatra is increasing contact between Malay Muslims in the three regions. An economic quadrangle linking northern Thailand with Burma, Laos, and southern China's Yunnan province is reviving ties between minorities split by arbitrary national borders. There is a growing border trade across the Mekong river between Thailand's ethnic Lao of the northeast and the Lao of Laos. Only a decade or so ago most of these border regions were tightly controlled by the military and border police and were almost completely off-limits to normal citizens.

Closer economic contact both with China is also benefiting the Chinese minority in Thailand. Thai-Chinese companies like Charoen Phokphant and Saha Union have been some of the biggest investors in China, while a large proportion of foreign investment in Thailand from the late 1980s has come from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Almost half of all Thai overseas workers are now employed in Taiwan's economy, and many others work in Singapore. The latest figures reveal that mainland Chinese tourists are now one of the tourist industry's largest markets.
Thailand's regions and minorities have also gained from the transformation in the political system over the last decade. The end of the Cold War has meant that the military and bureaucracy, which have dominated Thailand's political scene since 1932, have been under pressure to loosen their hold over the political system. The result is that the parliamentary system in Thailand now has real power.

Whom does the parliamentary system benefit? It is clear that it empowers the provinces considerably, for the simple reason that most seats belong to areas outside Bangkok. In addition, a large proportion of the members of parliament (many of them provincial businessmen) are of ethnic Chinese descent. The old paradigm of the Southeast Asian Chinese as dominating the economy but remaining excluded from politics no longer holds in Thailand. The development of the political system has given new protection to Sino-Thai identity.

Democratization also promotes the interests of other minorities. One of the most interesting recent trends has been the election of Malay Muslims (officially known as "Thai Muslims") to the Parliament and their appointment to very prominent positions. Indeed, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party courted the southern Muslim candidates, whose support was essential to his rise to the prime ministership. Under the Chavalit government a number of Malay Muslims held influential senior positions, including Wan Muhammad Nor Matha, who remains Parliamentary President and deputy leader of the New Aspiration Party, and New Aspiration Party power broker Den Dohmeena, whose family has a history of Muslim political activism.
The liberalization of Thailand's media is another factor behind the ethnic resurgence. After the pro-democracy violence of May 1992, there was intense public criticism of the state's control of the media. The instruments of cultural production (TV, radio, print) are now increasingly coming under the control of private operators. In the interests of commercial survival they must cater to the desires of the consumers, and this accounts for the rising popularity of cultural products with an ethnic or regional flavor in Thailand's media.

Lucrative Regionalism

Ethnic culture is undergoing a process of commercialization. Indeed, the major difference between official representations of Thai culture and official portrayals of ethnic culture is that the former has been disseminated through bureaucratic channels, while the latter is spreading as a result of market forces. Whereas two to three decades ago ethnic cultural identity was seen as a threat to political stability and national integration, today it is increasingly seen as a commodity.

One force behind the commodification of ethnic identity has been the tourist industry. Travel is something of a national pastime in Thailand, and with the increased political stability and prosperity of the boom years Thais have been doing more of it, especially domestically. The domestic tourist market is far larger than that for foreign tourists, and thus its economic, political and cultural impact is probably much greater. To earn the tourist baht, local regions need to promote themselves as different. Localities and regions have everything to gain by promoting their distinctiveness in culture, history, language, food, and dress. The current "Amazing Thailand" tourist campaign, designed to boost Thailand's tourist industry amid the gloom of the Asian economic crisis, highlights the country's ethnic and regional diversity.

For a century the Thai state has attempted to transform a multi-ethnic kingdom into a mono-cultural nation-state. Vigorous efforts to construct a homogeneous national culture and impose a narrowly defined national identity were accompanied by a process of political centralization. Now the cultural revival in Thailand's regions and among its minorities is taking place amid increasing calls for the decentralization of the aging state structure. Thailand's new constitution recognizes these calls for the first time by including a number of clauses safeguarding minority rights and enhancing the powers of certain local administrative bodies. Yet some of the key demands, including local elections for the powerful position of provincial governor (currently appointed by the Ministry of the Interior), were ignored. It seems that multiculturalism in Thailand has yet to fully flex its political muscle.

~This Issue's Index~
  Last modified Summer 2002 by Samuel Lipoff