Panel 6 - Re-Centering "Thai-ness" and Thai Studies: Perspectives from the "Others Within"

Saturday, Nov. 14, 19:15 - 20:15 (US CST)
Sunday, Nov. 15, 08:25 - 09:15 Thailand

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Micah F. Morton

Northern Illinois University
Alter-Indigeneities: Of the wai and the handshake

In this paper, I examine how ideas and practices of Thainess and non-Thainess have figured into the country’s relatively recent Indigenous Peoples’ movement, which is being spearheaded by the so-called “hill tribes” from the north. The Thai state has long framed these groups as the internal Other in relation to which it has constructed dominant notions of Thainess as centered on the nation, king, and religion. I especially highlight how Indigenous activists are compelled to employ the language and praxis of Thailand’s hegemonic and highly enmeshed discourse of nationalism and royalism if they are to exercise any voice in their grassroots movement for recognition and rights. Yet while their articulations of Indigeneity are necessarily conforming to Thai nationalist discourses of ethnicity and belonging, the activists are creatively reworking those discourses in a manner allowing them to convey their own distinct narratives of belonging to wider audiences. The nature of their political work further demonstrates that politics can take other forms beyond either rupture or refusal. In Thailand, rather, these activists are engaged in a different sort of politics based on accommodations, connections, manipulations, bargaining, deals, expediency, and, most importantly, patience and deliberation. I build on the work of Michel Foucault, Partha Chatterjee, and Arjun Appadurai in framing this work as a form of Indigenous “governmentality from below.”

Joel Selway

Brigham Young University
Variations in Thai-ness: A National Survey

Kwaam bpen thai, or Thai-ness, has been a long politicized concept in Thailand, control over which has been sought by established, conservative elites and progressive, democratic forces alike. To what extent do Thai citizens interpret their national identity in official terms and how does this differ by region, political affiliation, age, income, and gender? In a national sample of 5,500 respondents, this study compares the open-ended responses on the definition of Thai-ness and discusses what this means for the consolidation of Thai nationalism.

Ian G. Baird

A Hmong Child, Communist Party of Thailand Education in China, and “Thainess”

Chai Sae Lee was born to Hmong parents in a Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) stronghold in the mountains of northern Thailand and near the border with Laos. His father was studying in China, and his mother was struggling to raise him and his younger sister alone, so the CPT offered to send Chai to study in China. In 1974, when he was two years and eight months old, Hmong men with the CPT accompanied him to the border between Laos and China, where he met other young ethnic Hmong, T’in, and Thai children. They studied for many years at a CPT-run school in Baoshan Prefecture, Yunnan Province, but Chai became trapped in China due to a political falling out between Laos and China. Later, he studied at a Chinese language school in Beijing, and he was finally repatriated to Thailand in April 1986, where he was reunited with his family in Chiang Rai. What is particularly interesting about Chai’s story is that the education he received in China was initially all in central Thai language, and his teachers only ever mentioned a singular “Thai culture.” When he returned to Thailand, he only thought of himself as “Thai”, not Hmong. He was surprised when he returned to his village of birth, and found that everyone was speaking Hmong, not Thai, a language that he had totally forgotten. In this paper, I consider Chai’s experiences, including how CPT teachers only taught children about a single national Thai identity.

Related Pre-Recorded Presentations for Panel 6

Pittikorn Panyamanee

Chiang Mai University
Who Is the Thai-Indian Hindu Diaspora? How they belong to Thai society: An Ethnohistorical Study of Thai Urban Ethnic Society

This paper is an ethnographic study on the Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora. It is a content analysis and based on sensory observation on the Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora in Thai society. Furthermore, this paper aims to represent that the Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora is one of the Thai urban ethnic groups that belong to Thai citizens rather than Indian. They are the people who migrated to Thai society for generations. In a sense, there are two groups of the Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora. Firstly, the early pioneer—Siam Brahmans/Hindus, was settled down in ancient Thai kingdoms who assimilated and embedded themselves with the Thai royal institution and Thai society before. In a case, the early Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora is one of the people who constructed the Thainess who insisted they are different from the latecomer. Secondly, the group of Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora who migrated to Thailand during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 onward (postcolonial era). This group is living in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai. They have represented their identity via Thainess, Hinduness, and Northern Thai entities. As a result, the Thai-Indian Hindu diaspora is flexible on their identity; namely, they belong to Thai society through mimic and hybrid themselves with the localization and socialization processes. In short, Thainess is masked that Thai-Indian Hindu are deployed as their belonging strategy.

Hjorleifur Jonsson

Arizona State University
Merit, power, and parity: Exploring ethnic frontiers and the Thai social order

Much scholarship has taken Thailand’s ethnic divides for granted and overlooked how the negotiation of diversity and complexity has been foundational to Thai and other Southeast Asian societies and cultures.  An ideology of ethnically singular and exclusive Thai identity was pervasive in the 20th century, and anthropologists have largely taken it for a fact. My paper considers the common conviction of an unfamiliarity and absolute difference between Thai society and the hill tribes. An indigenous tradition of civil pluralism is hiding in plain sight, and the issue reveals alternative premises behind Thai social life. Lucien Hanks identified merit and power as the key principles of the Thai social order. I suggest that a third principle, parity, allows for the civil pluralism that merit and power may not recognize. Parity is anchored to Thai identity as inclusive and diverse, which has not been publicly admissible (except in non-serious fiction). The insistence on hill tribe difference from the Thai is ideological, and it has successfully distracted from the ordinary fact that there is no singularity to Thai identity.


Kanjana Thepboriruk, Ph.D., (กัญจนา เทพบริรักษ์)
Chair, NIU Thai Studies Committee

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