The formation of identity in Thailand

Identity

 

This will be a short presentation on the formation if identity in Thailand. The presentation will look at how not only identity has been developed, but also how it has been maintained throughout history. The focus will not, however, be solely on a National level but also from an ethnic identity viewpoint.

 

 

Thai National Identity

 

Thailand can be broken into four main regions. The North with its mountainous and fertile lands viable for growing rice and teak. Central Thailand home to Bangkok”City of Angels” and the fertile Chao Phraya basin. The North East (Essan) the driest, least productive and least modern place in Thailand. The South with its moist atmosphere where many produce rubber, tropical crops and tin. Thailand “Land of the free” In the past was a country living in the ideal of attaining a virtuous life by shaping their character to Buddhist principles where goodness was prized over personal wealth. Thailand has now changed from an absolute monarchy rule to one of self-sustained Democracy. Buddhism has supplied cognitive and evaluative elements that have been integrated into every aspect of Thai identity, even If the individual is Thai or part of a Thai ethnic minority. For example, many of the “hill tribes” in Thailand may be Christian or follow traditional religious practices. They do however pay respect to monks and often offer alms during ceremonies. Buddhism in Thailand is practised very differently compared to how Buddhism is practised in other many other countries such as in Japan, China and Vietnam. Each country practices Buddhism but in a very different way. For example, if the Dalai Lama came to Thailand he would have to sit down with the lay people as his position is not recognised in Theravada Buddhism.  In Japan there are not nearly as many images of Buddha compared to Thailand and if there are they are often quite plain and not extravagant and often painted and jewelled as they are in Thailand. As is shown it is distinctly Thai Buddhism that contributes to Thai people’s identity not the Buddhist faith itself with 95% following Theravada Buddhism. Thailand is a very Hierarchal society, If you are born into a  “High-so”  family as they are typically referred to her you, your sense of identity is of course very different than if you are born into a “Low-so” family. Being in a “High-so” family often individuals may have a feeling that they are held above ” Low-so” families. This is not through that particular person’s fault but rather how society has helped shape their identity. An individuals Identity as we know does often change in adolescence as people are exposed to new groups of individuals. When they leave the “bubble” of the social class and meet people from different backgrounds, religions and classes. This change happens not only throughout High School but all the way through to young adulthood.  Steinberg sums up the adolescence journey to identity perfectly by saying:”The development of a strong and stable sense of self is widely considered to be one of the central tasks of adolescence. Despite the fact that identity development occurs throughout one’s lifetime, adolescence is the first time that individuals begin to think about how our identity may affect our lives. During adolescence, we are much more self-conscious about our changing identities than at any other stage in our lives” Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill. Families are close in Thailand and are often held above all else, maintaining strong relationships throughout their entire lives.

 

Ethnic Identity

 

There are numerous Ethnic groups in Thailand  according to Reach To Teach” Of Thailand’s nearly 70 million people, roughly two-thirds are from Thai ethnic groups. Although the ethnic Thai people can be divided into dozens of different subgroups, their traditions, languages, and cultures differ only slightly. This leads to a population with a strong sense of shared traditions and cultural identity. The remaining third of the population is made up primarily of Chinese, as well as various minorities including Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, and Mein. Even among these diverse ethnic groups, the Thai language is widely spoken and understood, and the Thai script is often used in place of traditional writing styles.[Reachtoteachrecruiting.com,2016].There is also many much smaller ethnic groups throughout Thailand, many who may not even be citizens but have lived in Thailand for hundreds of years. The Karen people for example ” Current debates on Karen identity have tended to focus on the development of a nationalist construct of a pan-Karen community”[Rachel Sharpes,2015]. Many Karen people are Thai and are citizens but identify as Karen more than being Thai. Many ethnic groups such as the Karen live in the mountainous North of Thailand.  As the Thai government started cracking down on the growing of poppies(for opium and heroin production) many had to move further down the mountains Now the majority of Karen people still live in the mountains but do however go to lowland cities for work or grow cash crops in the hills. There has been in the past some problems of course between different groups Although the population of Thailand is relatively homogeneous—regionalism and ethnic differences are issues that are socially and politically significant. Moreover, these differences affect the access of specific groups and regions to economic and other resources, which in turn heightened ethnic or regional consciousness”[Library of congress]. Through all of this, the Karen and others have still kept a  strong sense of cultural identity. Many Karen people are Buddhist, but the majority are Christian and follow animistic beliefs. Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa’o on top of this, almost everyone speaks Thai. If there is a temple or a monk near a village they are still paid a high level of respect, given alms and offerings. This shows how the identity of many ethnic groups has changed since they first arrived in Thailand several hundred years ago.It is true each has their own customs and beliefs but are still very much living in Thailand and follow at least some of the Thai traditions. This is not characteristic for Karen people in other parts of the world. Karen people in America do not pay respect to Buddhist monks in America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

A sense of Identity is formed throughout our entire lives, always changing and adapting. We are born into an identity in some ways, some people with opportunities that people are not. This does not define us however as we are exposed to new groups and cultures our own identity changes, especially as young adults. For example, the Karen people as were shown, very much have their own identity. They are also Thai however. Karen people in America and Karen people in Thailand are as different in many ways as American and Thais are. Our identity is formed by those around us and our social environment, always changing, growing and adapting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture and Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism has been growing not only in the West but also much throughout Asia and the Middle East. It is something that is happening and will continue to happen more so on a global scale,it is not always a harmonious process however; there has and will continue to be a number of issues as cultures and peoples meld together.

In my school for example there is over 40 teachers in our Foreign Languages Department. This is a Thai public school and only fifteen of those teachers are Thai. There are teachers Cameroonian,Zimbabwe,England,Scotland,Poland,America,Tunisia,Philippines,China,Vietnam, among others.There is over twenty languages spoken in our office on a daily basis such as: Shona,French,English,Japanese,Korean,Tagalog,German, among a variety of other languages. Even here in Thailand a country that relies on its Foreign influence to survive to some degree there has been great friction. Many officials in Thailand including the Prime Minister  Prayut Chan-o-Cha have voiced their views against the foreign influence(reliance) in Thailand. It goes to show that in rural Thailand even a government high school has felt the effects of multiculturalism.

The argument of  universalism and cultural relativism is one that scholars  have always have and will continue to debate. Is it morally just to impose our views of right and wrong on other cultures ?

Many argue that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948) was influenced mostly by the west,therefore aligning with Western ideals of what an infringement of  human rights is and what is not. My friends for example who come from an Arabic background would show me the newspapers and articles in Arabic and translate them. We could then compare them to the American news version of the same incident.The version of news written in Arabic would read something akin to “American bomb massacres funeral party” it would be a main feature.If you did read about it at all in the American news it may be a side note and may read something different such as “successful air strike ” etc.  These instances may not be a breach of human rights as America had a huge hand in writing the Deceleration of Human Rights. However Middle-Eastern Countries did not nearly have as much of an input into the creating of the Deceleration.

This is why many academics link ethnocentrism to universalism as they believe that many Intergovernmental organisation such as the  International Criminal Court(ICC) are incapable of managing nor have to the right to manage international human rights abuse cases. Cultural relativists believe that cases should be managed on a case by case basis in locally governed offices by locally appointed officials. This way not only are you empowering locals and giving them a sense of agency in their own communities but being culturally sensitive to local issues.

I think that many people can be hypercritical of IGO’s, it is very easy to be critical of them as they are so authoritative now: people do not however offer alternatives.I do think that as IGO’s , globalisation and multiculturalism grows it becomes harder to  not see things as being universally right or wrong. What is right in one culture , may be deemed wrong by another. Look at that  the 2004 ‘Muslim Headscarf Ban’ that we studied before. I think from knowledge comes understanding and people need to understand other cultures and how they operate and from that understanding hopefully tolerance is born. IGO’s need to hire more in country experts and locals who know their own system better than international ‘experts’ . Many are of course trying , it is simply harder now as globalisation progresses.