[lg policy] Thailand: Need to embrace diversity

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sun Feb 25 15:47:26 EST 2018

 Need to embrace diversity

*opinion February 25, 2018 01:00*

By The Nation

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Being a Thai should be reinforced by the ideas of pluralism and inclusivity

On Friday, members of the international community came together at the
Bangladesh Embassy in Bangkok to commemorate International Mother’s
Language Day 2018.

A senior official from the Education Ministry, deputy permanent secretary
Watanaporn Ra-Ngubtook, said Thailand supports the use of
mother-tongue-based multilingual education to ensure that minority language
learners are not left out of the national education system.

Watanaporn said the country remains committed to making cultural and
linguistic diversity a cornerstone of development in Thailand.
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“Our country is home to 72 unique ethno-lingusitic groups – a wealth of
diversity that is among our national treasures,” she said. “Recognising the
different linguistic and cultural backgrounds among our people, the Thai
government has worked hard to protect and promote this cultural diversity.”
She pointed to Thailand’s advances in this area, including Mahidol
University’s Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education project. There is
no denying that language is an important part of one’s identity. In fact,
many of intra-country conflicts, such as the separatist insurgency in
Thailand’s Malay-speaking South, are about competing narratives and
identity. In this case, the Thai state-constructed identity has been
rejected by the Malays of Patani.

Our state-constructed identity required one to speak Thai in public
institutions, such as schools, municipalities, government offices, and so
on. The idea is to reinforce “Thainess”, or “kwam pen Thai”.

Let us admit that many of those who grow up in the central region, where
standard Thai is spoken, are condescending towards fellow citizens who
speak Lao, Khmer, Malay or one of the hilltribe languages.

In that respect, Watanaporn’s statement is a breath of fresh air, but the
truth is Thais do not treat dialects and languages of different regions
with equal respect.

Many Thais also look down on migrant workers from neighbouring countries.
Thai appreciation of these migrants is confined to the fact that they are
willing to work much harder and for a lot less money.

Mahidol University was awarded the Unesco King Sejong Prize in 2016 for its
mother tongue pilot project. The pilot phase is over and now is the time to
re-examine it to see how we as a society could build on it. This pilot
project has the potential to pave the way for a sound national language
policy that takes into consideration pluralism as a concept, not just fancy
words spouted by Thai officials. More debates will be needed, of course, if
we are to build on what Mahidol put forth and turn it into policy.

Unesco’s director in Bangkok, Maki Hayakishiwa, was quoted as saying
millions of primary school-aged children wordwide lack access to learning
in a language they understand and that this remains an “invisible barrier”
to education.

The statistics and studies are out there. It’s time for our policymakers
rethink policy and take certain concepts and principles like pluralism and
inclusivity into consideration. But for that to take place, they need to
come to terms with their own prejudices and racist views. Ironically, many
of whose so-called defenders of “Thainess” are children of immigrants whose
parents or grandparents migrated to this country two or three generations

They embrace this “Thainess” quickly, often abandoning their own cultural
and ethnic roots, believing that this is the only way they can be accepted
as a “Thai”. But being a Thai shouldn’t be a monopoly of the state or of
people from the central region. And being a Thai shouldn’t require one to
sell his or her soul.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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