Ethnic groups in Thailand - A study of minority groups within the Thai nation state involving ethnic Chinese, Muslims and Highland Peoples

Seminar Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. The Thai nation state
2.1. Coming into existence – The Thai society
2.2. Ethnic Thais and others

3. Ethnic minorities
3.1 Ethnic Chinese
3.1.1. History
3.2. Muslims in Thailand
3.3. Highland Peoples

4. Conclusions

5. Literature

1. Introduction

I am writing this paper on the Thai nation state and its minorities as a student of political sciences as well as social and cultural anthropology, educated at the University of Vienna. Through a short period I had the chance to study Thai culture in the country itself but this is not given me enough proficiency to judge the same. On my research I rely on scholars which have had wide range of vast experiences with the country, nevertheless I try to implement my own experiences in a, as far as it is possible, objective way.

Since 1939 Thailand exists, but only the name itself appeared then as Siam, its former name was known already hundreds of year, back to its traditional founding date in 1238 (CIA Factbook, Winichakul 1994:150). The difference between Siam and Thailand is the form of its organization, as Siam was always a monarchy ruled by an absolute monarch. Only 1932[1] this absolute monarchy became history and a new form of state was born. From there on we speak of Thailand – a modern nation state (McCargo 2000). As Thongchai Winichakul writes was this change a political act of a chauvinist regime to promote the domination of the ethnic Thai and their culture over others. The Thai government under Phibun[2] (1939-1944) had adopted to fascism, which was a global current during this time, they promoted the notion of the great Thai race and their territory (Winichakul 1994:18,150).

The following paper is going to deal with this concept of the Thai state during the major part of the last century, describing the challenges the western concept brought with it, especially in terms of ethnicity. Thailand was formed with nationalistic ideas, in a territorial as well as an ethnic way, whereas the latter was natural due to the fact that, as nowadays, 95% of the Thai citizens define themselves as ethnic Thai’s – including Isarn and Lanna (see 2.3). At the beginning of the nation this did not look as clear as it seams. As a part of the heterogeneous South East Asia also the territory of Thailand is inhabited by a wide ethnic divergence. Thailand itself brought many Chinese immigrants into the country, as workers adding to their economic boom. Where are they now? And much more interesting what are they now? But not only Chinese but also many other Highland Peoples found themselves within a nation state and had to adjust to that fact. A third major diversification factor for Thailand is the Muslim minority, especially in the South, bordering Malaysia. As a Buddhist state Thailand has to find a way to integrate this religion in the state ideology.

I want to examine the ethnic minorities in the nationalistic tool of state formation, how they were treated, reacted to or left aside and where they as well as the national ideology ended up.

2. The Thai nation state

As I just said in the Introduction began the history of the Thai nation state in 1932, with the end of the absolute monarchy in Siam (at this time). The history from there on until now can’t hardly be called democratic as there were 16 constitutions[3] mostly following coup d´etats. Thai history sees the struggle of Siam against the European imperialist tensions in the 19th century as the advent of the modern state but Siam can also be regarded as an undirect colonial country in economic and political terms from this time through several dictatorial regimes after World War II. The fact that Thailand did not achieve modern national political integration of minorities (ethnic, political, religious, ideological) can be added to this view (Winichakul 1994:13).

Only the student led uprising in 1973 was a democratic sight bringing the process of writing a new constitution into being (McCargo 2000:1). Even though authoritarianism came back in 1976, Thailand’s last constitution was finished in 1997 and is widely seen as a new marking point. Only the elections on January 6, 2001[4] where held under it and can be seen as the final overcoming of military rule.

2.1. Coming into existence – The Thai society

Going back to the year 1855, the famous Bowring Treaty was signed by King Mongkut, ending the royal monopolies and opening the country up to foreign trade (Mulder 2000:5). With that also new ideas came into Thai minds and in 1932 a new Thai nationalism was used to create a new state, led by the middle class people who came into contact with western thought and wanted power. The population of Siam was largely in the agricultural sector and uneducated, they did not have an idea what democracy was. It is often said that therefore Siam was not ready for democracy, whereas a constitutional monarchy was established at first. King Prajadhipok Rama VII agreed to the bloodless coup on June, 24, 1932 and singed the first Thai constitution on December 10 (, Lyovarin 2003).

Siam with its overly agricultural population was dually organized, the uneducated peasantry on one side and the royalty or noble elite on the other. From there on much change has certainly taken place within the last 50 years (see Mulder 2000:12f). Is democracy now working? Did the education of the citizens do its job to create a civil society who is able to speak up, not only through independent newspapers, but also through individual engagement in politics and their societal outcomes? The Thai society is not western, as we sometimes might want to see it as it is organized within a nation state nowadays, but how is society functioning if it is not western and what is the difference. To answer such a question I want to start with the family. Close relationships with what is defined as family, the circle of friends and classmates is very important in Thai society as it involves loyalties. Those relations represent the inner circle where ones loyalties are spread (see Mulder 2000:45).

A famous concept of Thai society is the avoidance of conflict, often associated with a permanent Thai smile. Overt conflict is to be avoided and good relations with ones neighbors have to be maintained. A cool heart is the norm people try to achieve; Buddhism teaches to avoid the extremes of the emotional spectrum (see Klausner 2000). The smile can be used as a self defense modus to keep people at a distance from each other and so to avoid conflicts. If everybody behaves accordingly these ideals can be achieved and as long as the people follow the rules, room for individualism is given and tolerated (Mulder 2000:49). Through the rice cultivation as the core of Thai ancient society, where people have to work closely together to achieve something and be able to feet themselves, a collectivist orientation has developed (see Kerbo/Slagter 2000:9ff). The group therefore is more important as the individual. Within this Asian value system a Thai individualism is spoken of as a characteristic of Thainess (khwampenthai). The inner circle of relationships are treated with a great group consciousness reflected the collectivist Asian model. As an example leaving this inner circle into the anonymity of greater Bangkok is an option where one can act as an individual.

Out of this Niels Mulder explains that the Nation is an anonymous mass including the Thai’s, the country and nation, the people, the society, the state and the common interest. As a Thai citizen one is recipient of exalted goodness and therefore there is the obligation to be good in return. How to be good is told through the religion, mainly Buddhism. Niels says that Gesellschaft is not existent in Thailand, he rather calls it the external world of society. This external world is viewed as nature would be viewed, as a shared resource but not a common possession. The big difference is that for the latter one has to take responsibility (see Mulder 2000: 111ff).

I started with the concept of family, which can be, if projected onto the state end in a very personal conception of social life in combination with hierarchy. A family consists of moral obligations, mutual dependence and recognition that individual members identities are primary defined by the group to which they belong. The outcome of Mulders theory is that keeping the society in order is the task of the government, culminating in a personalized leader (as a father), a concept which can be projected onto the king. Seeking patronage defines political behavior, the external world (outsides one inner realm) is seen as full of opportunities everybody can gain on an individualistic basis.

The old characterization of Thailand being loose structured and individualistic because of Buddhism and the concept of karma (which defines ones place and wishes no further) was written anew by the inner circle/external world concept of Mulder. “It is everybody’s and nobody’s place, where people compete for scarce resources and where power is the most desirable commodity” (Mulder 2000:136). Power therefor is something to achieve, something society accepts and honors. This concept goes in line with the political (or military) history of the last century but not with Buddhism. The religion can not explain why Thai’s are more individualistic than other Asians but plays an important role in national identity building nevertheless. The Thai Sangha - organization of Thai Buddhist monks - is nationwide and mostly respected. It was never totally apolitical and sometimes really involved as in the years between 1973 and 1976 when some monks joined the peaceful demonstrations on the students side but others also tried to defend the system standing on the right side. Dahm writes that in comparison with Burma the Thai monks are particularly apolitical (Dahm 2003:220). The population of Thailand is dependent on the Sangha in receiving advice, education and merit. The Sangha Education and Development Centers are part in the nation building, training the monks in techniques of making wells, water jars, modern hygiene, nutrition and sanitation (Klausner 189). The Government knows how influential the Sangha is and uses Buddhism in schools as a means to teach government policies to propose national culture under the disguise of Buddhism (Mulder 2000:101). Buddhism is connected directly to the populations as it is also connected to the popular level, including Brahman and Animist traditions (Klausner 2000:171). The Thai nation needed the support of the Sangha and the state.

In the context of this paper the Sangha and Buddhism becomes very important in defining the Thai nationalistic concept. What King Rama VI (1910-1925) formulated as the three pillars of Thai unity, continuity and identity as NATION; RELIGION (Buddhism) and the KING is true for most Thai’s nowadays. Being Thai is equated with being Buddhist. What does that mean for non Buddhist citizens? The Sangha was used to draw non-Buddhist hilltribe-populations into the mainstream of Thai life through the religion (Mulder 2000:98).


[1] A bloodless coup d´etat on June 24, 1932 by a group of civil servants and army officers with the support of army units in the Bangkok era.

[2] Phibun or Luang Plaek Phibunsongkram

[3] Between 1932 and 1959 constitutions subordinated the power of parliament to that of the executive branch, between 1959 and 1968 the Sarit and Thanom regimes used the constitutions to suspend the parliament, 1968 brought a slight opening and 1972 brought authoritarianism back which led to the uprise in 1973.

[4] Mainly the Democrat Party under Chuan Leekpai against the Thai Rak Thai Party under Taksin Shinawatra. The latter could finish with a slight victory, forming a coalition with the New Aspiration Party and the Chart Thai and being opposed by the Democrat Party and the Chart Pattana.

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Ethnic groups in Thailand - A study of minority groups within the Thai nation state involving ethnic Chinese, Muslims and Highland Peoples
University of Vienna  (Calpoly Thai Study Program 2004)
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Ethnic, Thailand, Thai, Chinese, Muslims, Highland, Peoples
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Sabine Putzgruber (Author), 2004, Ethnic groups in Thailand - A study of minority groups within the Thai nation state involving ethnic Chinese, Muslims and Highland Peoples, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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