Integration and Exclusion: Isan People and the Thai State
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME SEMINAR
About the Seminar
Since 2000, Thailand’s twenty Northeastern provinces, collectively called Isan, have become incredibly important to Thai politics, as they are home to the largest block of supporters of ousted Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and of the Red Shirt movement. Pacifying the region has been a central concern of the current military junta, in an echo of the worries of military regimes in the
Thailand’s “Northeastern problem”, as it was labeled in the 1960s, is one of both ethnic integration and exclusion. Approximately one-third of Thailand’s people hail from the Northeast, most of them ethnically Lao people who identify as Isan. Unlike other ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, Isan people tend to eschew political mobilization through their ethnic identity, instead embracing their “Thai-ness” and taking pains to differentiate themselves from the Lao across the Mekong. At the same time, Isan people are among the poorest in Thailand, with relatively few economic or political benefits accruing to the region. In addition, the Lao language and phenotype are frequently criticized by Central Thais and the Thai state. Thus, the Isan region is both integrated into the Thai nation and simultaneously subject to economic and political exclusion. This seminar examines the large-scale public adoption of the government-approved Thai identity among Isan people. It argues that the dual forces of positive inducements for integration and the negative consequences and stigmas associated with being labeled as “not Thai” create an environment in which Isan identity is subsumed within the official Thai identity. At the same time, Isan identity remains salient and serves as a possible source of political mobilization. The Thai state’s century-long effort to create a unified Thai identity could thus potentially be challenged by the rise of ethnic tensions between Central Thais and Isan people.
About the Speaker
Jacob Ricks is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. Jacob specializes in politics and development in Southeast Asia, with special emphasis on Thailand and Indonesia. His work has been published in World Politics, Political Behavior, World Development, Journal of Contemporary Asia, and Pacific Affairs. He is currently researching the politics of ethnic and economic integration in Thailand.