The formation of identity in Thailand



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.[,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.









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.













Brief Brief on Gender Inequality in Thailand

In 2011, Thailand ranked 69th out of 143 countries in the Gender Inequality Index. The Gender Inequality Index mainly focuses on topics such as sex segregation and employer discrimination. During the last several decades the Thai Government and Non-Government Organisations have put many motions in place trying to change their ranking on the Gender Inequality Index.




In Thailand, the structure of gender relations suitable same for hundreds of years, with women being caretakers of the family and men taking care of the household financially.Thailand, however, had a massive shift in their social and economic structure in the 1960’s which changed gender relations in the country. The change in gender relations was due to a massive influx of American culture due to the war in Vietnam.Even the relatively small city that I live in had an American military base. Until this point, only the elite in society had any exposure to Western culture in any way. Many Thai people being exposed to these new ideals were drawn to the new and modern ways; this ended in the traditional Thai rural family unit, something of the past and people looked for a fortune in many of the major cities such as Bangkok.




There are three ways in which Thailand still has to make progress; this is reproductive health, empowerment, and economic activity.Regarding reproductive health,  too many women are dying from maternal causes. Too many adolescent women are still giving birth. With roughly 48 women dying in every hundred thousand dying from pregnancy-related causes and 43 out of every 1,000 births being those by adolescents(15-19).Empowerment for females is also still an issue as only 14% of all parliament seats are held by women, and with regards to education, only 25% of women have attained at least secondary school education. Economically women in Thailand still had a labour force of 65% as of 2011.




Due to Thailand dramatic Western influence in the 1960’s Thailand changes from an agricultural to an industrial economy.Now women in Thailand hold 50% of the employment rate.


The breakdown of occupations can be shown:








Agricultural (55.8%)

Mining and quarrying (83.6%)

Public administration and defence (64.0%)

Water supply (69.7%)

Construction (84.6%)

Transportation storage (86.9%)

Information and communication (64.8%)

Professional, Scientific and Technical (52.4%)

Administrative and support services (57.7%)

Electricity, gas, stream supply industry (81.17%).





Accommodation and food service (64.2%)

Financial and insurance activities (55.5%)

Real estate activities (55.7%)

Education (61.1%)

Human health and social work (75.9%)

Activities of household employers (82.1%)

Activities in international organisations (100.0%)

Other service activity industry (55.3%).



From personal experience, there does seem to be very much a “glass ceiling” in Thailand.Part of my job is to travel to various schools, almost every time the Directors, Vice Directors and Heads of Departments are men, even when many women have been working at the school for many years and are much more experienced more than them.



There have definitely been improvements, however. As was mentioned before due to the Western influence Thailand changed dramatically during the 1960’s. This did break down many of the traditional Thai family social norms. However, some of these changes were progressive. These changes allowed women to start and education and eventually a career. These changes allowed women to not only serve their families but server themselves. It is true that women still face opposition and many a “glass ceiling”, the salaries are still not the same, women still are often sold by their families and women must often do what is best for their family. In 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra was elected as the first ever female Prime Minister of Thailand, something which would not even be a concept in the 1800’s.Thailand has a long way to go regarding gender equality, but for now, at least it is moving in the right direction.


Gustavo Esteva’s talk on ‘Challenging the Institutional Production of Truth’

Mexican activist Gustavo Esteva is a world renowned intellectual and is the founder of Universidad de La Tierra. He is a well-known advocate of post-development as well as being active in the Zapatista movement in Mexico which advocates the rights of indigenous people. In 2012 he gave a provocative talk on ‘Challenging the Institutional Production of Truth’ at Berkley, California. In this talk, he mentioned the “current situation”. This is as he feels is a radical situation. The radical situation he describes as “A radical situation is a moment, a period of collective awakening. Produced by two separate factors. One is a tough situation, jobs, assets, expectations are gone” (Gustavo Esteva, Berkley 2012). The second factor he described as being “With increasing evidence that the powers that be are doing, aggravate the situation, instead of solving our problems. These two factors combined produce this collective awareness.” (Gustavo Esteva, Berkley 2012).


The institutional Production of Truth


Esteva says that there is nothing more important than “challenging the institutional production of truth” Esteva mentions the “Truth not being right or wrong but the statement’s to which we burn ourselves”. This a statement which many believe in and hold real value in. Truth is universal, and it is singular. However, there are two forms of this truth.To begin with, there is the empirical truth, for example, humans need oxygen to survive. The other form of truth is truth itself, this is defined by ourselves, what we believe, what we do, the way we think.(Michael Patrick Lynch, The nature of truth, MIT press,2001) This does not mean however the truth that we know is in fact the established real truth. Esteva describes the truth that we know as being “constructed by the powers that be” and that “they decide what is right and wrong”. The Cambridge dictionary shows that “the powers that be” refers to “important people, who have power over others”. It could, however, be ascertained in this case in particular that Esteva is referring to the government or at least political bodies of the government. In a democracy, it is believed that the decisions are made democratically. Evidence against this view can be obtained from The Foundation for Economic Education ( it states” Before a democratic process can even begin to function, some nondemocratic process has to make the rules. And those rules will have a major impact on the choices available to the people once they finally begin to have a say. “So an example of this could be shown when a legislator is voted is elected in America. When they are then elected, there is no guarantee they will adhere to what the people will truly wish of them when in power. The protest against the war in Iraq is one such instance labeled “the largest protest event in human history”(Walgrave, Stefaan; Rucht, Dieter(2010). The number of protesters accounted by the BBC ranged from eight to thirty million. All of these protests and shows of rejection were to no avail. However, nothing stopped the war in Iraq. It is true politicians are democratically elected, they do however determine the very rules in which they will stand for election.



Esteva makes several points on food. Food is something no longer in the hands of everyday people but is in fact in the hands of larger powerful companies .He points out that “half the world is starving, the other half are scared to eat”. There are multinational super companies that control so much of the world now: Monsanto, Walmart, Nestle, and Kraft to name but a few. He talks about them having a ”moral epiphany”. It is well documented that these companies are very powerful in and amongst themselves. Coca-Cola for example is summarized by Bob Zurn(Coca-Cola: The Power of a Brand) he describes it as “showing the popularity of a soft drink as well as the dominance of American entrepreneurialism in the twentieth century and beyond.” This is simply one of many super companies that control vast amounts of industry throughout the world as can be depicted in the image below.graphic-72dpi-8x5-english_custom-e7798a240cf729589c407e5c47c5e3db515da21a-s40-c85.jpg

To Challenge the Institutional Production of Truth

As mentioned before Esteva said how important it is to “Challenge the Institutional production of Truth”. He even gives examples of some acts where people have wrought such. One such person that Esteva mentions is Pope Gregory the seventh. Esteva was a very beloved and abhorred man in his time. During the twelfth century he was a pioneer in many regards. One such example is “connected with his championship of compulsory celibacy among the clergy and his attack on simony” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Chrisholm Hugh).This was very unpopular among the clergy and he invoked widespread resistance which led ultimately to his exile. A people which Esteva also mentions is the Zapatista army of National Liberalism (EZLN) more commonly referred to as the Zapatistas. They are a revolutionary leftist group movement based in Chiapas, Mexico. Possibly there most famous act is the 1994 uprising also known as the Chiapas conflict. This is where the EZLN led an armed insurgence against the Mexican government because of the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).This agreement undermined the rights of indigenous people in Mexico. Since then the EZLN has declared war against the state and stands for social, Cultural and land rights for indigenous people. Even today they still oppose the Mexican Government.







These were just a few and brief minor points and people mentioned by Esteva. He has apparently painted a clear picture of ‘the current situation’. It is a time when people are ruled by ‘the powers that be’ and as Esteve put it “there is a crack in the dominant mentality”. His talk gave much evidence that although many social movements have made tremendous changes throughout history, they must be started by one person. That is all that it takes, one person to make the difference. From lowly medieval peasants leading revolts against their Lord everyday individuals in the French revolution, this is what the world needs. Social change to be started by just one ordinary person.