[lg policy] Thailand: Rolling back the crimes of 'Thai-ness'

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Feb 28 14:40:53 UTC 2015

Rolling back the crimes of 'Thai-ness'
 The Nation February 27, 2015 1:00 am
A state policy of uniformity has air-brushed minorities out of the national
picture; we need a national language policy to undo that wrong New light is
being shed on the distinct cultures of Thailand's Northeast thanks to a
project being launched by Khon Kaen University's Department of Culture and
the city's authorities.

A memorandum of understanding signed today will mark the start of the joint
project, which aims to preserve and promote Isaan culture. The emphasis
will be on the learning of the Tai Noi script as a gateway to understanding
the region's past and also creating new indigenous literature. The project
will also promote home-grown performing arts such as mor lam and seek to
improve the museums that showcase the region's cultural and historical

The initiative is an attempt to build on a European Union-funded effort -
the Isaan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme. Eighteen public
schools will participate in the project, with more expected to follow when
the first phase ends in 12 months' time.

The scope and aims of the project are impressive, but success in achieving
them is stymied by the absence of an official national language policy in
Thailand. That lack means the Lao dialects spoken by millions in Isaan are
not officially recognised as regional languages that should be taught and
studied in Northeast schools.

Obviously any project that aims to preserve local indigenous culture in
Thailand should be welcome. The Thai state needs to show that it values
such efforts by forging a national language policy that offers official
recognition to the many Isaan Lao dialects - including Black Tai, Lao Song,
Lao Paun and Phu Tai - and their Khmer counterparts.

And as a national policy, that recognition should extend to the distinct
ethnic cultures and dialects in the rest of the country.

Thailand's ethnic minorities have for too long been forced to accept the
domination of a state-constructed culture of "Thai-ness".

Until relatively recently, public schools were required to fine any student
who spoke the "local" language in class. The victims of this policy still
talk of the humiliation they suffered at the hands of the state's effort to
"Thai-ify" them.

They recall the awkwardness and indignity of having to speak Thai to
friends or colleagues in public institutions, while anywhere else the
conversation would have been held in their own language.

For a national language policy to be a success, it must be underpinned by
real concern for human dignity. Moreover, the Thai state and mainstream
society must learn to accept and appreciate the country's demographic
diversity, rather than seeking to mould minority cultures into conformity.

The failure of such "moulding" is most evident in the Malay-speaking South,
where resistance to the state construct of "Thai-ness" has flared into
decades of armed conflict.

In other regions, too, the pressure to conform to government-sanctioned
norms and manners has spawned deep resentment towards the state among

Sad to say, our authoritarian tendencies have destroyed much of the local
diversity that makes this country so rich and civilised.

To protect what remains, we must make the proper distinction between the
state and civilisation, so that the former does not destroy the latter.

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