Redefining “Thainess”: Embracing Diversity, Preserving Unity

Suwilai Premsrirat
Resource Center for Documentation, Revitalization
and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures,
Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University


The 21st century is an age of rapid change. Language loss, like the loss of biodiversity, is accelerating at an alarming rate. Sixty to ninety percent of the worldûs languages are in danger of disappearing (Krauss 1992). This leads directly to a significant loss of human knowledge. Globalization and nationalism have contributed to the forced assimilation of diverse linguistic and cultural resources into dominant cultures. International organizations have responded by calling for the protection and preservation of language and cultural diversity through consecutive campaigns to raise awareness of this global issue.

This paper examines the consequences of the successful promotion of the concept of çThainessé as used for the purpose of nation-building. However, despite its obvious national benefit in unifying the country for administrative purposes, it has also had a serious detrimental effect, in particular, contributing to the loss of language diversity as now evidenced by the 15 most endangered languages of Thailand (Suwilai 2007). In large language groups in border regions, such as the Patani Malay in Southern Thailand, language identity issues and cultural conflict underlie the violence and political unrest. There are concerted efforts by grassroots communities to reverse the situation, with the technical support of academics, to revitalize and maintain their language and culture in various ways, including education. One especially important method is through the teaching of the ethnic language as a main subject and the provision of mother tongue-based bilingual education, in a number of languages, including Patani Malay.

As for society at large, a multilingual / multicultural society should be promoted to accommodate this undervalued cultural diversity. The notion of çThainessé needs to be broadened to offer ethnolinguistic groups their own space within Thai political society on an equal basis so that they may be empowered to live a dignified life with security, justice and opportunity. Central to this is access to quality education and employment, to reinvigorate their culture and linguistic identity. A national language policy that supports the use of ethnic languages in public life, education and local mass media is a must to meet the demands and needs of the various marginalized minority groups in Thailand. Such a policy will open up opportunities to positively exploit the variety of accumulated wealth and wisdom embodied within such unique cultures and linguistic histories, and will provide sustainable public benefits in terms of both economic and security gains.