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Thaification: from ethnicity to nationality

Written by: Marcus Tao Mox Lim/ Edited by: Manfredi Pozzoli

“We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves”

Perhaps one of the many gut-wrenching sentences from George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984. Hidden behind the Orwellian personifications of enforced state dogmatism highlights the unending quest for states to mould monolithic identities, albeit in less abhorrent ways.

Siam, present-day Thailand, presents an interesting anthropological account for its fierce sense of identity despite the ‘Thai’ nation state’s fairly recent inception in 1939. Infamously known for the world’s harshest lèse-majesté enforcement and outlandish infatuation towards the monarchy; altruistic patriotism within the Thai psyche cannot be understated. One can only wonder the origins for such chauvinism. Whether it is a result of habitual state indoctrination or a product of generational socialisation, the roots of Thailand’s acculturation success can be linked to the prism of language and social stratification. 

From Tai to Thais: the development of Thai ethnocentrism

At its peak, the influence of Siam included the vassal states of Cambodia, Laos, modern-day Myanmar and some Malay kingdoms. Political power was concentrated in the hands of the Central Tais (speakers of the Tai branch of the Tai-Kadai language family), who populated Rattanakosin (modern-day Bangkok). Other ethnic groups such as Laotian, Isan and Karen were formally incorporated into Siamese domains and enjoyed some forms of cultural autonomy. Siam was also a destination for Chinese immigrants who flocked to urban centres and dominated affluent economic sectors such as rice, tobacco and petroleum industries.

The Siamese Revolution of 1933 unravelled the social fabric of Siamese society, it not only restricted the monarchy to a constitutional role, but it also sought to change the social organisations within the nation. It began the move away from a multi-ethnic imperial federation to a highly centralised mono-identarian political structure. Moreover, the conscious change in its name from Siam to Thailand in 1939 by Phibun’s regime reflected a determination to construct a new identity in pursuit of ‘modernity’. The old Siam represented ethnic and religious pluralism whereas the new Thailand reinforced cultural uniformity under the dominant Central Tai elites.

Chief Prince regent Aditya Dirabha affixes the Royal Seal to the decree making Siam the Kingdom of Thai. Left: Coregent General Bijayendra Yodhin Source: Life Magazine, 1939
Stamps commemorating King Rama VI (left) and King Rama IX (right) and the difference in country name i.e., Siam and Thailand. Source: History Today

Phibunsongkhram, Thailand’s Prime Minister who assumed the role in 1932 after the revolution sought to manifest nationalism by constructing a Thai identity through a centralised, state-sanctioned programme that included education reform, active promotion of Central Thai language and active discrimination against other cultures and dialects. These policies were aimed towards assimilating minority ethnic groups within the dominant culture of the Central Tais: placing ‘Bangkoknian values’ at the heart of the political epicentre. 

Phibun’s regime wanted to emphasise Thailand’s unique identity, as the only Southeast Asian nation to resist colonialism. The so-called Ratthaniyom (‘state preference’) was spearheaded to mobilise national spirit to implement progressive tendencies and changes. Phibun needed the people to view themselves as extensions of the state, mobilising Thai patriotism, unity and pride as a propelling force during the Second World War.

In particular, Phibun was inspired by Western conceptions of an exclusive nation-state and was motivated to emulate race-based nationalism in Thailand. Nonetheless, such an idea did not spring out of the blue: since the 1900s, ethnocentric nationalist theorists like Luang Wichiwathakan had attempted to promote policies that equated the Tai linguistic group with a greater pan-Thai race-based nation. A key enabler for this grand outlook was the genuine belief in Thai exceptionalism which has been presented as a heroic tale in promoting nationalism. Crucial to this tale were the threats to maintaining status-quo, the influx of Chinese immigration and republican ideas from the Kuomingtang.  

By the early 1900s, the Chinese community in Bangkok was sizeable, consisting a third of the capital’s population. As the Chinese community dominated profitable economic sectors while natives were impoverished, anti-Chinese sentiments were rife. In a pamphlet entitled ‘Jews of the East’, King Rama VI had lambasted the Chinese community under a pseudonym: blaming the wealth disparity and native hardships on the ‘Yellow Peril’.

As a means of moving towards uniformity, 12 Thai Cultural Mandates were decreed by Phibun’s regime in 1932 to create a ‘civilised’ Thai culture. These set of values dictated the way of life in Thailand from dress code to religion. Most importantly, it codified the demonym and ethnonym of its citizens – the use of subdivision identities i.e., Muslim Thais, northern Thais were prohibited.

Thai identity’s ‘fluid’ sense

At the crux of Phibun’s nationalism was the importance of ethnocentric pride, this can be seen from the third verse in the national anthem:

This Siamese land is the bulwark of the Thai race

Our blood runs through this nation’s veins.

Put simply, there is no Thai race – it was invented to fit the ethnonationalist rhetoric.

The successful reimagination of a Thai race is something that is unique: it did not subscribe to traditional eugenics or Social Darwinist conceptions of race and religion like the ones in Nazi Germany. Rather, Thai identity was consciously constructed as something that was achievable. Kukrit Pramoj, Prime Minister who briefly served in 1975 explained the essence of being Thai

“A Thai is not a person who is born by blood … if you do something to yourself, then you become a Thai. This means you accept Thai values, Thai ideals, […] you are loyal to the king and to the nation.”

The gates of Thai-ness were hypothetically open to all who chose to conform to the state approved requirements: something that was possible with willpower and participation regardless of ethnic heritage. The other crucial element was the pull factor of being Thai: those who wished to be Thai could do so by abandoning previous ethnic affiliations in favour of upward mobility in socioeconomic hierarchies. This was the particularly the case with assimilated Chinese immigrants who dropped their Chinese surnames for Thai ones in return for a string of political and economic benefits. 

Phibun’s regime quintessentially employed ‘carrot-and-stick’ approaches to achieve a Thai state. By making Thai identity accessible and attractive, it was able to draw ethnic communities to subscribe to a national identity. Contrastingly, the ‘stick’ approach was equally used to repress socio-political pluralism. Political violence was committed to standardise Central Thai language by suppressing and eradicating Han Chinese consciousness and identity. Profitable industries dominated by the Chinese community were nationalised. Chinese businesses found themselves harassed by a range of new taxes, property confiscation, forced expropriation and coercive social policies. 

Entrenched hierarchical power through language

Phibun understood that language is intrinsically tied to identity and ideas, he recognised the ability for languages to create instantaneous unity and invoke nationalism through a standard form of expression. By discouraging the use of other vernacular languages and dialects, Phibun’s regime had manufactured a narrative based on ethnolinguistic pride that placed the Central Thai language at the pinnacle.

There were really two facets of Central Thai language promotion: harsh methods were imposed onto Chinese communities, with Chinese instruction schools being prohibited and language classes being severely limited. Its effects were enormous, present-day Thai Chinese communities have “nearly lost their language along with their Chinese identity”. Contrasingly, Central Thai was spread across the country through centralised curriculums, reducing the perception of the language’s exclusivity.

As learning and speaking Thai became a vital component of embodying Ratthaniyom, inducements were particularly effective as they played on the psychological aspects of social hierarchies that were deeply entrenched in societal norms. A linguistic hierarchy was thus invented by the state wherein fluent speakers enjoyed higher status and recognition. Nonetheless, prejudice and discrimination remained omnipresent for those who were not able to adopt Bangkoknian accents.

Not only was native culture alienated or to some extent, wiped out in this period, Phibun’s regime linked political allegiance to the adoption of Thai identity in the background of the Second World War. To be castigated as being insufficiently Thai became a powerful political weapon with lethal consequences. As a result, through a process of social engineering, generational socialisation and a rhetoric of fear, most natives, even today, “espouse the mantra that being Thai is far superior than being labelled as part of an alternate ethnic group”.

Conclusion

Phibun’s nationalistic agenda demonstrates the capacity of states to shape identity: today, nearly all Thai Chinese solely self-identify as Thai, due to the close integration and successful assimilation continued policies from Phibun’s time. Perhaps a result of consciousness in social hierarchies, the Thai case has demonstrated that by constructing nation-building discourses and homogenising languages, the state is capable of convincing citizens to adopt a state-sanctioned identity.

By leaving the Thai identify as an achievable personal choice, Phibun had prevented a pigeonhole scenario that would have impeded the assimilation of ethnic groups. The mix approaches of hard and soft methods in pursuing his nationalist agenda had rendered it a success, that left a strong, defining mark in modern Thai society.

Looking back at Orwell’s narration, while Phibun did not go anywhere close to the fictitious indoctrination methods seen in Room 101, its motives were similar: dogmatism through a rhetoric of fear. 

Nonetheless, underneath the veneer of a homogenised state identity, Thailand is undisputedly home to a heterogenous population who are not necessarily willing to follow Central Thai ways. The ongoing Southern Thai insurgency is an example that shows the challenges that impinged upon assimilating an alien community with a strong, independent history, culture and religion.

Bibliography

Ricks, Jacob I..(2019). Proud to be Thai: The puzzling absence of ethnicity-based political cleavages in Northeastern Thailand. Pacific Affairs, 92(2), 257-285.

Cochrane, Liam. “New Thai King Moves to ‘Ensure His Royal Powers’.” ABC News, ABC News, 10 Jan. 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-10/thai-king-requests-constitutional-changes-to-ensure-powers/8174062. 

Cavendish , Richard. “Siam Becomes Thailand.” History Today, History Today, 6 June 2014, www.historytoday.com/archive/siam-becomes-thailand.

Tong, Chee Kiong, and Kwok B. Chan. Alternate Identities:  the Chinese in Contemporary Thailand. Times Academic Press, 2001.

Kalab, Milada. “Ethnicity and the Language Used as a Medium of Instruction in Schools.” Asian Journal of Social Science 10.1 (1982): 96-102. Web.

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