The Myth of Thai Homogeneity

At a recent Singapore seminar on the Thai political crisis, a Thai participant voiced his dislike of the term “Bangkok elites.” The participant, a male in his mid-30s, argued that the repeated use of such terms would only further divide Thai society. The perception of existing social classifications, he said, was at the root of Thailand’s protracted conflict.

Just when everyone in the room seemed to agree, he went on to say that he himself, as a businessman, had been in regular contact with the rich and powerful in Bangkok through business activity, and that he felt that they were not acting as if they were parts of the Bangkok elite. They were just like us, he said. The businessman, speaking with an American accent, also claimed that Thailand is a very homogenous country, that all Thais profess Buddhism and love their king.

Was he in fact a closet Bangkok elite pretending to detest political classification? More crucially, is Thailand really a homogeneous country as he claimed?

In fact, the three-year-old political crisis has exposed the reality that, contrary to widespread perceptions among the elites, Thailand is not a homogeneous nation in terms of race, religion and ethnicity. Recently, the discourse has been further challenged by the emergence of widely diverging political views that have seriously threatened the conventional way of looking at politics.

The prominent history professor Charnvit Kasetsiri recently launched a campaign to change the name of the country from Thailand back to Siam. Charnvit argues that the name better reflects the country’s ethnic diversity. To him, “Thailand” was intended to be exclusionary from the start, referring to a distinct people, supposedly derived from the Tai of China.

In 1939, the military government of Field Marshal Phibun Songkram changed the country’s name, saying that “Thailand” was more suitable because it represented the country’s majority ethnic group and was popular with the people. The name change clearly had a political agenda. As always, the name of a historic site, city or even country can become intensely contentious in the event it is used to discredit the previous regime and to legitimize the new incumbents in power.

Siam became Thailand merely because Phibun wanted to validate his despotic regime. He was seeking to distance himself from the previous rule by the absolute monarchy.

“Thailand” also conveyed a message that the Thai races for the first time were integrated under military rule. It was politically significant because it delineated the connection between the elites’ political legitimacy and Thai nationalism. History was then rewritten to backdate the name, which was to be used as the name for all past kingdoms regardless of reality. Therefore the name has long been perceived as containing a racist-nationalist tone.

Today, Professor Charnvit’s supporters argue that politically and ethnically, the name Siam is correct. That is because despite the perception of homogeneity there is great ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity among the people, ranging from the Thai, Malays, Lao, Mon, Khmer, Chinese, Arabs, Hmong, Farang (Caucasians) and many more—a total of more than 50 ethnicities and languages. The reasons cited by the Phibun government concerning the ethnic majority were thus not true and are contradicted by the historical evidence.

More importantly, the campaign supporters also believe that the country’s name change could help to abate the conflict in the south, which has been partly plagued by ethnic clashes between the Thai Buddhist state and the minority Muslims. For the Thai participants to assert that all Thais have their faith in Buddhism clearly reflects the elitist mentality of attempting to manipulate the nation’s religious space.

Similarly within the political space, the notion of Thailand as a homogeneous country is also highly troublesome. Thailand has changed drastically over the years. New factors have emerged and new players have entered the political scene. They have begun to exert their influence in the political process and have refused to remain passive. During much of Thailand’s economic boom over the past two decades, these new players, mostly residing in the poor provinces, watched wealth pass them by and go to the hands of the Bangkok urbanites. What they craved was political inclusion and a fair share of the country’s economic prosperity. But what they got were soap operas and official messages that stressed homogeneous thinking and unity.

One of the causes of the persistent conflict originates in the unbending outlook of the traditional elites, who continue to forbid dissenting voices. They have instead further sanctified the traditional belief of social and political homogeneity while seeking to rebuke those outside their network through a variety of stratagems. The dissenters were forced to comply with the orders of the ruling elite and sacrifice their political conviction for the sake of peace, order and conformity.

Yet a homogeneous Thailand does not benefit them politically. On the contrary, it strengthens the already firm grip on power of the ruling elite. This grip is likely to tighten further as the country approaches the inevitable period of royal transition. Hence, appeals for the maintenance of political, social and political homogeneity are growing louder. At the same time, the punishment against those who question the country’s homogeneity is getting more severe. Room for compromise is apparently shrinking.

Some express their anxiety about the apparent different political viewpoints. They ask, “What will hold Thailand together without the much-revered monarch who has been seen as a unifying force for the country?” But the question only opens the door for the traditional elite to exploit the status quo as a justification to get rid of any dissenting viewpoints.

There is nothing wrong with a society that comprises many different peoples from various backgrounds and with different political opinions. However, the crisis has persisted fundamentally because the traditional elites have continued to promote homogeneity at the expense of respecting political, racial and religious diversities.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is his personal view.