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Un-Thai lives matter! Thai identity politics as a race war?

Article by Dr Tim Rackett

July 19, 2022

Un-Thai lives matter! Thai identity politics as a race war?

Spoiler alert: this chapter argues that the royal Buddhist kingdom of Thailand is not a ‘land of smiles’, peaceful and harmonious, but a deeply divided nation. A violent racist society riven with social, political, inequalities, divisions and sectarian ethno-religious conflicts. My hypothesis is the predominant cause of social division and political conflict in modern Thailand lies in a post-colonial racist formation of Thai identity fashioned by an elite Bangkok minority and imposed upon the majority and other ethno-religious and regional populations. What is meant to unify – an imagined community of the Thai race and society – actually divides. Thai national identity, goodness, as we shall see, seems to need a bad enemy-other within or without. From the state point of view there is only one way of being Thai and behaving Thai. Peoples deemed to be un-Thai can, and have been, ‘cancelled’; treated as lives unworthy of living.

 

In Thailand citizens must be polite, servile and submissive to manifest a true authentic civilised Thai identity.[1] To be Thai is to: worship and unconditionally love the King; love and serve the nation and Thai race; and be a Buddhist. This is “kwam pen Thai”: Thai-ness. A person is born Thai and is a Buddhist subject of a king of ‘pure race from pure blood’ who rules in the name of truth, goodness, purity and virtue. Above politics and the law, a supposed ‘god-king’ descended from the heavens, the King is seen as a sacred incarnation of the nation, drawing on the mystical-magical authority of Indian Brahmanism and Buddhism. Thailand is held together as a nation: “based on ethnic and cultural homogeneity organised around the monarchy. Its nationalism organised around race as spiritually led by the King”.[2] The Thai social and political order is a royal theological one with the King at the apex and its center in Bangkok.

 

Student and street protests of the last two years reveal an open contestation of Thai culture and the role played by the military and monarchy in Thai society. This can be seen as a rebirth of a subaltern “slow-burn civil war” started by the Red shirts.[3] The ongoing war in ‘Deep South’ of Thailand is a symptom of royal racist rule upon Muslims. Conflict in the southern border provinces from 2004 to April 2022 has claimed 7,356 deaths and 20,898 casualties.[4]

 

Divisions of skin ethnicity and religion

Elite Bangkokians, mostly wealthier lighter skinned Sino-Thais, consider people with dark skins as low class, ugly and dirty. Rural ethnic Khmer Lao and Southern Thais tend to have darker skins read as a manifestation of ‘inner badness’. Skin colour signifies a person’s social status and moral worth; this comes from Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and ideals. Beauty and complexion reflect merit, moral purity and goodness. Thais call Southern Thais and Muslims “kaek” – a term that subsumes Southern Asians, Malays and Arabs-as they all have darker skins. Keyes shows historically how “kaek” is associated with the Buddhist figure of Evil: ‘Mara’ and dark bearded demons.[5] Thai Muslims and ethnic Malay Muslims are ‘othered’ by religion and skin colour: un-Thai dark non-Buddhists. Skin colour and religion are racialised. In Thai state racism they do not belong and are treated as lesser Thais or non-authentic Thais.

 

Likewise, in the body-politic person’s origin in Bangkok, the royal centre and sacred ‘head’ of Thai civilisation, or far away in the rural provinces, the dirty ‘feet’, badges them being uncivilised. Coming from the countryside: the North, the Northeast, or Thailand’s ‘Deep South’ signifies low status. Dark skinned country people, people who do not speak Central Thai, especially Northeasterners, are seen by Bangkok elites as morally inferior, uneducated, ignorant and vulgar: “kon bannok” or ‘rednecks’. Predominantly ethnic Lao and Khmer, they are called derogatory names signifying that they are not Thai and not fully human: “aii Lao” and “kwai” – meaning water buffalo. Rural people (Burmese and Cambodian guest workers too) are seen as only fit to be domestic helpers, sex workers, food vendors and taxi drivers. Everyone in Thailand must conform to one uniform way to be Thai in a ‘hierarchical and essentialist model of nationalism marginalising most of the country’s population as inferior, whilst Bangkokians see themselves as superior racially’.[6]

 

Thai politics works by both assimilating everyone and dividing people against others. People are either: good or bad people, friend or foe. Are you one of us or one of them? An un-Thai enemy-other? Dissent from Thai-ness is not tolerated and can be met with murder in the name of defending the monarchy and Thai society against dangerous and ungovernable others. Others within national borders but outside the boundaries of Thai-ness. Thai national identity relationally needs an enemy – other to fight in order to be itself.[7] The ‘enemy’ can be inside or outside the nation’s body politic, or, can even be an in ‘inner enemy’ nesting in the very heart of the self. What is specific about Thai nationalism is its reactive negative identification placing Thai’s ‘over and above’ and ‘set apart’ from others. The chief determination of what is Thai identity is negative difference: it is not Vietnamese, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, Malay, Farang, or Khaek. These signify negative attributes, so that only Thai-ness can possesses a full, positive identity and attributes.[8]

 

Historically, after anti-monarchists, it was communists who were seen as the number one enemy of Thai-ness undermining ‘national security, the institutions of religion and monarchy’. The state passed a law in 1969 making it a crime “to encourage any other person to lose their faith in religion, or any act that destroys the customs and traditions of the Thai race”.[9] People in Thailand are offered the choice: ‘Turn Thai or disappear!’ Many have been disappeared. Political refugee Red shirt activists and government critics; Lese majeste fugitive Surachai ‘Sae Dan’ is feared to have been murdered along with two other men whose bodies were washed up from the Mekong River on 29th December 2019. Prominent Muslim lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, critic of martial law in Thailand’s southern provinces, was disappeared in Bangkok on the evening of 12th March 2004. Wanchalearm, a pro-democracy activist, fled to Cambodia after the May 2014 military coup in Thailand. He was abducted by unidentified armed men in Phnom Penh on 4th June 2020.

 

Thai ‘internal racism of permanent purification’[10]

For a Buddhist nation, Thailand has a tragic history of violence. Rather than non-violent peace making and reconciliation, Thailand’s tradition is of ‘serial massacres’ of individuals and populations and their erasure from social memory. A ‘Thanato-politics’ of extermination of un-Thai others within: in 1972 3,000 communist suspects are believed to have been killed by being burned alive in 200-litre oil drums (while the bodies were burning, truck engines were revved to mask the screams of those who were being murdered;[11] ‘hill tribes’ in the North of Thailand napalmed for alleged communist sympathies and drug-related activities; anti-military dictator demonstrators in Black May 1992 murdered by right wing paramilitary group; Buddhist soldiers killed more than a 100 ethnic Malay Thai Muslims in the siege of the ‘Kru Ze’ mosque in Patani Southern Thailand; and at Tak Bai, Narathiwat on 25th October 2004, over 78 unarmed protestors died, mainly from suffocation in the back of army trucks.35 Or, as a high ranking ex-Thaksin government official I interviewed claimed, their execution was ordered. In April-May 2010, over 90 ‘Red Shirt’ anti-coup unarmed demonstrators were killed by soldiers on the streets of Bangkok in a ‘live fire zone’.

 

The Thai state protects the superiority and purity of the Thai race by killing in the defence of society and race against impure inhuman, animal, and others.[12] Killing, with impunity, in the name of Thai-ness, those badged with being un-Thai are seen as impurities in need of cleansing. In the modern Thai Buddhist state it is racial purity that justifies murder: “the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race…is something that will make life heathier: healthier and purer”.[13] Below we shall see a non-Western form of ‘colonising genocide’ of others within.[14]

 

To make sense of the notion of a Thai race and Thai racism we have to visit a myth concerning the colonial encounter in 19th Century Siam royal absolutism, Bangkok elites, and state hierarchical racial formations of identity, which deny ethnic diversity and erase differences.

 

Thai race and racism in a nationalist myth

The myth is that Siam was a global unique exception in never being colonised by the West due to its special civilisational characteristics: a superior ‘master race’ presided over by semi-divine monarch who outwitted the French and British in the 19th Century. This is a fiction. Not only that, it is a dangerous illusion as it creates a ‘theology of Thai exceptionalism’, which renders Thais ‘ignorant and narcissistic’.[15] The myth of non-colonisation incites racist views towards other Southeast Asian countries seen as being colonised because they were inferior to Siam.

 

The colonial encounter and the invention of a Thai race

Absolute power was gained by Siamese ruling elites’ ‘self-colonisation’ to meet the bourgeois standards norms, moral and values of Western civilisation. This was ‘achieved by developing an intense form of internal tyranny, namely, racism subjugating the local populations’.[16] The belief in the Thai as superior race, with other races as inferior, masks Siamese Imperialism and its violent ‘internal colonisation’ of ethno-religious populations who were not Thai. Rama V visited colonies of Singapore, Malaya, Burma, India and Java in 1871-2 with a vision ‘to turn his kingdom into a miniature European colony without the Europeans, making it a modern ‘civilised’ Asian state’.[17] Populations were enslaved by the Siamese elites’ self-colonisation as they felt inferior to the west but superior to local ‘barbarians’ ethno-religious subalterns who they needed to make Siam civilised.

 

King Chulalongkorn adopted the French’s 1893 conquest of the Siamese royal palace by gunboat, by sending a navy warship to the Patani River in Southern Thailand and imprisoned its last Malay Sultan. Siam’s rule over ‘Malay states became a showcase to demonstrate Siam’s ability to modernise/colonise’ because they are a superior race and civilisation that could modernise itself.[18] Siam wished to compete as an equal with the British colonies. It did this by using law to efficiently rule the native populations-displacing Islamic authority in the South. The Malay savages needed Thai-ifying by Bangkok civility. Siam conducted a racialising ‘inner-colonisation’ of ‘savage jungle others’ outside Bangkok. The Thai race to be civilised needs uncivilised bad and inferior enemy-others in order to be good and superior in the name of the ‘protection of the security of the whole from internal dangers’.[19]

 

Streckfuss’ analysis shows the birth of the notion of a Thai race.[20] The Siamese royal ruling class in resisting the French used and creatively adapted a Western anthropological not biological concept of race against the French to create a new identity of being Thai, and a territorial state, which would become Thailand.[21] French colonialists saw the Siamese as a lesser race, a ‘mixed and tainted’ minority within Siam vis-à-vis others Chinese, Malay, Lao, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and tribal peoples.[22] For French Indo-Chinese rule the non-Siamese should be under the protection of the French as they were racially oppressed by a “Siamese Lilliputian oligarchy”.[23] The Siamese could only rule the lands with Siamese subjects, but this limited Siam to the Chaopraya River basin. The French 1893 treaty laid claim to their ethnic protégés in an ‘annexation by stealth’ of what used to be Lao and Khmer zones in Siam. The French counted Lao and Cambodians as theirs, entitled to French protection. For the ruling Siamese elite the Lao were seen as the same Thai race, but not the Khmer race who the Siamese ruled. The French using race tried to ‘define the racial Siamese minority out of Siam’, whilst the Siamese responded by inventing a Thai race.[24] The kingdom of Siam became the nation-race or Empire of Thai-land. Race – “chaat” was used to form national identity and belonging as Thai, replacing a Siamese identity.[25] Thai royalty extended racial boundaries to existing territorial limits so that the entire population of the country became Thai subjects. Prince Damrong, Minister of the Interior, stated his aim to “make all the people Thais, not Lao, nor Malay at all”. Others were absorbed and assimilated into the Thai race: a Thai-ification. No more Lao provinces and people, as the Bangkok ruling elite “began to erase the Lao-ethnically, historically, and demographically-from Siam”.[26] A myth of a great Thai race was born. Thai as the same race, but different from: Shans, Lao, Peguans, Annamese, Chinese, and “especially Burmese, Malay and Cambodians originally prisoners of war”. Race and nationality fused together ‘subsumed all the people of Thailand into an imagined “Thai-ness”.[27]

 

The Thai-ification of the Lao population was a key part of a racist process of assimilating and negating differences, changing Siamese heterogeneous multi-ethnic populations into Thai mono-ethnicity and mono-culture.[28] In the early 20th Century in Siam one fifth of the population spoke non- Thai languages and over 50 per cent were ethnic Lao. Government administrators were not allowed to call people in North and Northeastern Thailand Lao, these regions were to be integrated and must speak central Thai. Regional identities and ethnic affiliations were erased in an unequal hierarchy. The Lao-Northeasterners have been ‘ethnically negated and socially marginalised’ in an ethnic cleansing of Thai history: erasing the Lao, as if only the Thai race ever existed.[29]

 

Faith becomes fate: Race and primordial religiosity

Southern Thailand with its Muslim majority population has a long history of resistance to Bangkok’s rule amidst a struggle for autonomy. The provinces of Patanni, Yala and Narathiwat, were a sultanate subjected to internal colonisation into Siam in 1905. The Thai state violently suppressed the Dusun-Nyor revolt by Malay Muslims in 1948 and the Islamic teacher Haji Sulong was disappeared in 1954. Since the massacres of 2004, it appears as a clash of Thai/Buddhist and Muslim groups is occurring in the Deep South.

 

The work of Michael K. Jerryson and McCargo shows that people learn how to be a Buddhist or a Muslim in southern Thailand in particular ways.[30] Individuals’ ethno-religious identifications and displays of loyalty and affiliation have been constructed as a national security issue by the Thai state and as a means of righteous insurrection by Muslim militants. Mobilising religion transforms security forces into “moral guardians, sacred avengers of the nation, not mere State servants, whose sacred duty is to uphold and protect the integrity of Thai Buddhism.”[31]

 

Buddhist nationalism incites fury and violence in the South.[32] Malay Muslim insurgents incite hatred and murderous violence against Thais constructed as ‘kafir’ unbelievers, mirroring Thai racism against (Malay) Muslims. Both Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims construct Manichean worlds, each other as incarnations of goodness and badness, in constant negation of a tradition of amicable inter-faith and inter-ethnic community relations. Malay Muslims racist marginalisation and ethno-religious exclusion from Thai-ness drives militants to turn amity into enmity. Islamic religion, like Buddhism, has been politicised to justify killing both Malays, as traitors and collaborators, as well as Thais-as Buddhist oppressors. Southern insurgents resist and rebel as Muslims, their religion is an ethnic marker.[33] Insurgents fight a ‘Patani jihad’ to impose only one way to be Malay-Muslim. Ironically, this is an inversion of the state enforced version of Thai-ness.

 

McCargo argues that the significance of the southern violent insurgency challenges the legitimacy of the Thai state and “the microcosm of a potentially wide ranging civil conflict in the country”.[34] Solving the conflict, Jerryson argues, will require the “reworking of Thailand’s concept of racial formations,” which act to “displace minority identities by measuring their ethnic and religious identities against the norm of Thai Buddhism.”[35]

 

Happy endings?

Violence in Southern Thailand: Tolerance and truce making?

The challenge of coexistence is how well people can they live with ‘otherness’ instead of seeking to convert or integrate the ‘others’? Tolerance of different faiths, histories, cultures and identities is needed in Thailand. Grahame Thompson’s audacious argument is that truce seeking is more important than truth seeking in the pursuit of peace.[36] A fixation on justice will lead to an attitude of attributing blame, whereas a truce situation moderates two parties where there is no winner or loser. Thus, political conflict can be moderated by cultivating a style of conduct “that embodies a studied indifference towards difference.”[37] Buddhist or Muslim absolute and cosmic differences become insignificant: de-escalating violent conflict and depolarising identities among social combatants to attempt to secure social peace. Enduring peace is possible if people can relate to each other in shared common humanity, not as symbols of ethnic and religious communities badged with un-Thai otherness. The Thai state would have to govern through equanimity: ceasing to support royal Buddhist nationalism, the King as God, which excludes Muslims and Malays from being ‘true’ Thais and citizens.

 

The meaning of Thaksin and the Red Shirt Movement for inclusion

Following Ferrara’s astute analysis PM Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement populism arose from addressing social divisions in the North and Northeast embracing those marginalised by the state.[38] Thaksin was deposed by a military coup in 2006 for becoming more charismatic and popular than King Bhumibol (the King already tried to assassinate Thaksin). The subaltern rebellion by the anti-military populist Red shirts against royalist conservative Yellow shirts threatened a ‘slow burn civil war’ because Thaksin’s policies championed diversity and inclusion. Thaksin’s pro-poor rural policies lifted people out being fixed in their place as racially unequal. His power came from below, by popular mandate of the people not an elite imposed from above. Unlike the royal Bangkok elite, Thaksin asked for people’s loyalty not by stressing the virtues of hierarchy, or their duty to accept their station in life, but rather by promising greater equality and opportunity for social and economic mobility. Thaksin’s support was not bound or defined by ethnicity, racist exclusion of ‘less than perfectly Thai’ ethno-regional local identities marginalised by the state. What Thaksin offered was “an affirmation of their ethno-regional pride and yearning for recognition” as equal Thai citizens, not racially inferior subjects.[39] What remains to be delineated is the spiritual modality of Thai racism and purification politics to exit being governed in the name of Thai culture.

 

Tim Rackett read Sociology at Essex University and studied under Ernesto Laclau, and Paul Hirst at Birkbeck College. His doctorate “Transcultural Psychiatry and the Truth of Racism” is an investigation into the relations between reason, power and truth-telling concerning culture and madness in colonial and post-colonial metropolitan racist situations. Tim, for the last 26 years in Southeast Asia, has explored non-Western politics of purification and truth; the rights of ethno-religious minorities-Malay Muslims in Southern Thailand, Kachin refugees in Malaysia; Thai Buddhist nationalism and racism. Tim’s publications include: ‘No ‘Me’’, Mine’, or Religion: Buddhdasa’s Cosmopolitan Planetary Life’ “in ‘Asian-Arab Philosophical Dialogue on Culture of Peace and Human Dignity’ UNESCO Bangkok 2011; ‘States of Mind and Exception: Enactments of Buddhist ontological Truth and purification in Thai religious nationalism in the mid-20th and early 21st centuries’, Journal of Religion and Violence 2014, and ‘Thailand: Exception to the rule or rule by exception?’ Constellations of Southeast Asia ed. Jan Nederveen Pieterse et al. 2017). Currently Tim is working on mapping Khmer Studies.

 

[1] Jory, Patrick. 2021. A History of Manners and Civility in Thailand. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Streckfuss, David. An ‘ethnic’ reading of ‘Thai’ history in the twilight of the century-old official ‘Thai’ national model. South East Asia Research 20, no. 3, (2012): 419–441.

[3] Montesano, Michael J., Chachavalpongpun, Pavin and Chongvilaivan, Aekapol. 2012. Bangkok, May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

[4] Srisompop Jitpiromsri, Southern Border/Patani 2004-2021: Stepping into the Nineteenth Year Where will peace go in 2022?, DeepSouthWatch, January 2022, https://deepsouthwatch.org/th/node/12816

[5] Keyes, Charles. Muslim ‘Others’ in Buddhist Thailand. Thammasat Review 13, no. 1, (2009).

[6] Streckfuss, David. An ‘ethnic’ reading of ‘Thai’ history in the twilight of the century-old official ‘Thai’ national model. South East Asia Research 20, no. 3, (2012): 419–441.

[7] Winichakul, Thongchai. 1994. Siam Mapped. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Streckfuss, David. 2011. Truth on Trial in Thailand. London, UK :Routledge.

[10] Foucault, Michel. 2020. Society Must Be Defended. Penguin Classics.

[11] Haberkorn, Tyrell. 2013. Getting Away with Murder in Thailand: State Violence and Impunity in Phatthalung. In State Violence in East Asia, eds. N. Ganesan and Sung Chull Kim. Lexington, US: University Press of Kentucky, 185-208.

[12] Foucault, Michel. 2020. Society Must Be Defended. Penguin Classics; Thongchai Winichakul. The “germs”: The reds’ infection of the Thai political body, New Mandala, May 2010, http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/05/03/thongchai-winichakul-on-the-red-germs/#more-9382

[13] Foucault, Michel. 2020. Society Must Be Defended. Penguin Classics.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thongchai Winichakul, 2011 “Siam’s Colonial Conditions and the Birth of Thai History”, https://bit.ly/3yR1ovc

[16] Jackson, Peter A. The Performative State: Semi-coloniality and the Tyranny of Images in Modern Thailand. Sojourn 19, no. 2, (2004): 219-53

[17] Jackson, Peter A. The Performative State: Semi-coloniality and the Tyranny of Images in Modern Thailand. Sojourn 19, no. 2, (2004): 219-53

[18] Loos, Tamara. 2002. Subject Siam: Family Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books Cornell University.

[19] Foucault, Michel. 2020. Society Must Be Defended. Penguin Classics.

[20] Streckfuss, David. 1993. The mixed colonial legacy in Siam: origins of Thai racialist thought, in Sears, L. J. (ed.), Autonomous Histories, Particular Truths: Essays in Honor of John R. W. Smail. Madison, US: University of Wisconsin

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Jerryson, Michael K. 2011. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. New York, US: Oxford University Press; McCargo, Duncan. 2009. Tearing Apart the Land. Singapore: NUS Press; McCargo, Duncan. 2012. Mapping National Anxieties. Denmark: NIAS.

[31] Jerryson, Michael K. 2011. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. New York, US: Oxford University Press.

[32] Ibid.; Rackett, Tim. States of Mind and Exception: Enactments of Buddhist ontological Truth and purification in Thai religious nationalism in the mid-20th and early 21st Centuries. .Journal of Religion and Violence 2, no. 1, (2014 a.); Rackett, Tim. Review of Buddhist Fury M. K. Jerryson. Journal of Religion and Violence 2, no. 3, (2014 b).

[33] Askew, Marc. Fighting with Ghosts: Querying Thailand’s “Southern Fire”. Contemporary Southeast Asia 32, no. 2, (2010): 117-155

[34] McCargo, Duncan. 2012. Mapping National Anxieties. Denmark: NIAS.

[35] Jerryson, Michael K. 2011. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. New York, US: Oxford University Press.

[36] Thompson, Grahame F. 2005. Toleration and the Art of International Governance: How is it Possible to ‘Live Together’ in a Fragmenting International System?, in Habitus: A Sense of Place. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ferrara, Frederico. 2015. The Political Developoment of Modern Thailand. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

[39] Ibid.

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