Webinar on “The Development of Regional and Ethnic Identities on Thailand’s Northern and Southern Peripheries”

In this webinar, Dr Leslie Castro-Woodhouse and Mr Graham Dalrymple discussed the issue of regional and ethnic identities, which figured prominently in Thailand’s affairs, and the current provincial metropolitan divides.


Thursday, 3 November 2022 – Despite Thailand’s extreme political and administrative centralization, diverse regional and ethnic identities have become increasingly visible in the country. Those identities are in no way primordial; they have histories. The often-surprising histories of regional and ethnic identities in Thailand are crucial to their contemporary salience, as provincial-metropolitan divides figure so importantly in the country’s affairs.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Leslie Castro-Woodhouse, Dr Napon Jatusripitak (moderator) and Mr Graham Dalrymple. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The ISEAS Thailand Studies Programme held a webinar, under Chatham House Rule inviting Dr Leslie-Castro Woodhouse, the author of “Woman between Two Kingdoms: Dara Rasami and the Making of Modern Thailand (2021)” and Mr Graham Dalrymple, a researcher at the Muslim Studies Centre, Chulalongkorn University. The webinar attracted the interest of 52 attendees.

The ethnic identities discussed in the webinar are Lanna identity in Northern Thailand and Orang Melayu in Southern Thailand.


  • Observers wondered whether the ethnonationalist sentiment of Lanna will translate into a viable separatist movement. However, the movement somehow faded away in the following eight years. The speaker argued that the Lanna identity might be the reason behind the lack of a viable separatist movement.
  • The speaker then explored the history of Lanna and described how Lanna is a constellation of different monolith states. Southeast Asian polities were part of a tributary system with multiple, overlapping sovereignties. The term was “galactic polity” operating according to a mandala scheme—a reference to the work of Stanley Tambiah.
  • The geography of the region dictated how the Lanna identity was formulated. The terrain of Lanna has steep mountain ranges from north to south with flowing rivers. The mountains divide the rivers and tend to connect different sectors of trade. They also tend to isolate groups of human settlements. This fostered great diversity in the region.
  • Lanna had its own king and queen but at the same time, Lanna entered into a relationship with Siam as it took on the status of a vassal state. However, this relationship shifted by the latter quarter of the 19th century.
  • Siam was pressured by the British to enter into unequal treaties called the Chiang Mai Treaties without any input from Lanna’s rulership. The treaties were set up between the British and Siamese to manage the relations of British Burmese citizens in Chiang Mai, especially for the British Burmese loggers who were having trouble with leasing forests from the local Chiang Mai nobles.
  • This destabilised the balance of power between Lanna and Siam. These treaties introduced extra-territorial rights for British Burmese citizens in Lanna such as local policing and tax farming. These policies made life difficult for many small farmers and lower-level Chao officials.
  • Siamese history turned away from cementing statecraft relationships via marital alliances with women from neighbouring to westernised model based on territory. In 1893, Siam began the process of the ‘Thetsaphiban system’ which put more Siamese officials on the ground through the provinces.  The loss of social status and political power has sowed deep distrust between Chiang Mai nobles and Siamese rulers in Bangkok.
  • This brought about a number of rebellions and resistance from the local people such as the Phya Phap rebellion and Shan (Phrae) rebellion. In response to the episodes of resistance, Siamese responded by stationing more troops in the region, demoting elites that were affiliated with rebels and setting up a new school teaching Siamese administrative practices.
  • As the railway line reached Chiang Mai in 1922, trade and tourism expanded and the geographic distance between Bangkok and Lanna was bridged.
  • After 1932, the Thai state began to implement public schools throughout the provinces. The official language of instruction became Thai for both written and spoken languages, and Lanna culture began to lose ground to central Thai culture. The North also became an economic vassal to Bangkok as the flow of trade reversed from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with textiles and staples being imported to Chiang Mai.
  • Between the 1960s and 2000s, Lanna culture was revived largely by a famous figure in Lanna studies, Kraisri Nimmanhaeminda, who restarted a focus on Lanna uniqueness where traditional Lanna dance forms and Khantoke dinner culture sparked renewed interest.
  • The speaker argued that the connections between Lanna identity and territory are too tenuous to support a separatist movement. The kham muang only persisted in essence and never spread to upland people. The movement also failed to effectively harness the cultural or Buddhist elements. Elite-aligned Lanna identity also tends to be focused on cultural expressions such as music, dance, and dress which are visual representations and less political.

Melayu to Thai Islam

  • The speaker explored the ethnogenesis and ethnic change amongst Muslims in Songkhla province based on historical data and data from the speaker’s field research.
  • There are approximately over 6 million Muslims living in Thailand. The amount of data and literature on Muslim population is both historically and anthropologically vast and varied. However, the majority of research, especially for the Deep South, is conducted with a focus on security due to the violence and ongoing insurgency in regions such as Yala and Pattani.
  • The speaker implored that the ethnogenesis and ethnic change are mentioned or cited but are not often theoretically explored. There is little research done on Muslims in Songkhla region whether on ethnicity or on religious practices.
  • Muslim people in Thailand are usually categorised into two main groups namely Thai Muslims and Malay-speaking Muslims in the deep south.  Before nationalist policies were implemented, the Thai state recognized Muslims in the South as after the policies, they were recategorized as Thai Muslims leading to new categories and forms of identification.
  • The speaker conducted the fieldwork in the Chana district, Songkhla province on Muslim males from 30 to 60 years old mainly. The study was conducted entirely in the Thai language.
  • The speaker identified three main groups in the study depending on the ethnonym preferences. The first one is for those who clearly identify as Thai Muslims. This group mostly consists of males from the age group 30 – 35 and is likely to be the result of the state-prescribed ethnonym policies purely identified along the lines of nationality as Thai and religion as Islam.
  • The second group identify themselves as the ethnonym Thai Muslim with Malay heritage. The respondents of this group are males from the age group 40 – 60 years old. Perhaps the respondents might have heard about the Malay history of the district from their parents and relatives.
  • The last group is specifically identified as Malay Orae Nayu. They would speak Thai outside of their community and in the public sphere. However, in their private social circles and in their communities, they would mainly prefer to be identified with the ethnonym Malay Orae Nayu. Basically, they are identified as Malay people from Thailand or from Songkhla region.
  • The speaker then moved on to explain the ethnogenesis in Chana district and the wider southern region and proposed three main reasons from research analysis. The first one is the political and administrative changes in the region; the second reason is the state-sponsored ethnogenesis; and the last one being language and education.
  • Siamese officials began to change the language used and brought more Siamese influence in the region. The key changes were the Siamese reforms under the Chulalongkorn reign in 1932.
  • The grandparents of the respondents stopped using the Malay language after 1932 with the implementation of Thai government policies of ethnogenesis. Residents at that time started going to Thai schools as well. A 1910 Map showed Chana as a separate district and not under the administration of Songkhla at that time. Administrative changes over hundreds of years were significant factors in ethnic change as the region was being brought under Siamese control.
  • The older residents were more aware of the government policies of ethnogenesis in the 1930s and the 1940s. Policies regarding dress, language, manners and ethnonyms were key to ethnic change and to nurturing the Thai ethnic identity and nationalism. This was the primary factor for ethnic change.
  • Thai government policies had reached the core of Muslims in Chana and made them wary of the Malay identity. According to respondents, over time the Thai state had repeatedly tried to absorb the Malay identity. Muslims can enjoy the freedom of religion, but the freedom of ethnic expression was absorbed generation after generation.
  • The relationship between education and the language was very significant and uniquely southern in the deep south. There was an introduction of Thai state schools throughout all of Thailand which used the Thai language as the language of instruction. Muslims at that time had to make a choice between going to a local Islamic school or going to local Thai government schools for the future and career possibilities.
  • From the 1950s onward, there was a new policy regarding education and Islamic government schools. Islamic institutions (BM. Pondoks) were using Bahasa Malay and studying Malay religious books. Now, these have been replaced by registered private Islamic schools which taught both secular and religious subjects while the language of instruction was Thai.
  • Students can learn the Islamic religion but do not need to learn Malay to do so anymore, Malay books are translated into Thai, or the teachers translate the Malay text into Thai so all students can understand in the class. Amongst younger generations, respondents related that Malay isn’t being used in daily life anymore, except for speaking within the family. So the level of Malay language use is reducing rapidly amongst younger people from Malay-speaking communities in Chana district. That was “the final nail in the coffin” for the ethnogenesis coming from language and education policies.
  • The speaker concluded that ethnogenesis is an ongoing process in Chana and the wider region, which is yet to be completed. The respondents in the research also mentioned that they would like to celebrate the Malay heritage and preserve the culture maintaining the freedom and the opportunity to express their ethnic background. The preferred ethnonym for the future would be Thai as their nationality, Malay as their ethnicity and Islam as their religious affiliation.

The question-and-answer session at the conclusion of this webinar covered the hill tribes people in northern Thailand, the correlation between the Thai Muslim identity and the age group, visible differences between Thai Muslims in Songkhla and other regions, push-back against state-sponsored ethnogenesis, Malaysia’s role in facilitating Malay cultural revival, and religion’s role in the assimilation of Lanna into Siamese identity.