A New Dataset on Horizontal Structural Ethnic Inequalities in Thailand in Order to Address Sustainable Development Goal 10

The research examined whether there are horizontal structural inequalities by ethnicity in Thailand. Further, it examines what some of the reasons might be for these inequalities, and lastly, the policy implications that this entails.


John Draper



College of Local Administration

Khon Kaen University

John Draper is also the Director of the Social Survey Center

The research examined whether there are horizontal structural inequalities by ethnicity in Thailand. Further, it examines what some of the reasons might be for these inequalities, and lastly, the policy implications that this entails.

Key Takeaways

  • “This study’s results present several findings that should inform future policy on sustainable human development. First, while it is generally known that the Thai Malay and uplands minorities suffer extreme inequity within the Thai socio-economic system, the new dataset highlights the extent to which other groups also suffer high levels of inequity. Amongst the larger groups, the Thai Lao rank last in almost all areas. Indeed, the Thai Malay actually rank higher than the Thai Lao on four of the eight indices, namely income, health, housing, and transport and communications. While the government, in response to continuing violence, has made economic inequality a target of efforts in the South, the Thai Lao have not enjoyed an equal focus. Given the nature of political strife over the past decade or so (Keyes 2014), the government and its development partners should seriously consider addressing this.” (Draper and Selway, 2019, p. 292)
  • “Second, the Mon-Khmer perform worse than the Malay on five of the indices, namely income, health, housing, transportation, and participation; they also perform similarly poor on education. We estimate their size at just over 5% of the population, and the Mon-Khmer are a majority in Surin and Srisaket provinces and a large minority in Buriram. With ethnic kin across the border in a tense relationship with the Thai government (Chachavalpongpun, 2012), the government should consider an ethnic inequality remedial policy strategy, especially in health.” (Draper and Selway, 2019, pp. 292-293)

How To Apply Insights

  • The Thai government is currently extremely centralized. In order to combat ethnic penalties, there is a need for decentralization, especially in regional planning, and greater regional autonomy. Several policy changes would be relevant with respect to this. Firstly, the provincial governors, which are currently appointed by the central authorities, should rather be elected locally in the regions. This increases the chances of ethnic minority representation among the regional governors. Secondly, the use of the mother tongue of ethnic minorities should be encouraged in health care, education and other public institutions to combat ethnic inequalities that stem from language barriers. UNICEF and UNESCO have already piloted such projects in Southern Thailand – these should be expanded. Finally, we recommend greater fiscal decentralization, either at provincial or regional levels.
  • In order to better highlight and examine the existence of ethnic penalties, we recommend that the National Statistical Office of Thailand flags for a much wider range of ethnic minorities in their censuses, e.g., by including the Thai Lao, together with clear guidelines.
  • With respect to regional cooperation, for example within ASEAN, it is important to keep in mind the sensitivity of that comes with the examination of ethnic penalties for minorities from each of the involved countries that may be majorities in other countries. In order to limit the factor of embarrassment for each of the involved countries, regional studies conducted by ASEAN should be accompanied by a celebration of the intra-regional historical ties that the ethnic diversity within Southeast Asian countries represents. Any examination will be facilitated by focusing on cooperation to combat ethnic penalties in the region as a whole, rather than singling out individual countries, primarily via the Sociocultural Pillar.

Why This Research Matters

In the discussion about within-country inequality in Thailand, the importance of ethnic groups is rarely discussed. Even though Thailand is broken down into regions, and there has been some focus on inter-regional inequalities, these inequalities are normally explained through geographical differences, and questions of whether some ethnic groups might experience more favorable conditions while others experience an ethnic penalty have attracted little attention. The research in this article provides an empirical investigation as to whether such ethnic penalties do exist in Thailand.

Findings & Research Conclusions

We did indeed find that there were major inter-ethnic group inequalities within Thailand, which are not fully exposed if one only examines geographical inequalities between the regions as a whole. Bangkok for example, as the country’s capital and home of the largest ethnic group, receives far more from the provinces containing other ethnic groups than it gives back to these provinces, on a yearly basis. These inequalities call for greater decentralization and plans to develop the communities of ethnic minorities.

Research's methodology

While conducting the quantitative research, it was important for us to use data that would be respected by the Thai state. All the data that we used thus originated from a UN office, or it was data collected by the National Statistical Office of Thailand. For our ethnic map of Thailand, we used a printed version from a royally patronized research center at the Mahidol University, one of Thailand’s big five state universities. For indicating the differences in socioeconomic outcomes between the ethnic groups, we used indicators of human development specified by the UN.

The qualitative research part consisted of a theoretical discussion based via document analysis on Thailand’s colonial history and struggles for independence. Half a dozen Thai public officials on different levels of government were also interviewed.

This study can be extended to the neighboring countries as well, where ethnic diversity also exists, to examine the existence of ethnic penalties there.


In this research, we were not able to analyze inequalities for ethnic groups with populations below 100,000 members, and the research was thus limited to the assessment of ethnic inequalities for around a dozen of Thailand’s major ethnic groups.

ethnic penaltyone or more differences in human development outcomes created by structural differences that exist because of being a member of a specific ethnic group

Reference this research

Draper, J., & Selway, J. S. (2019). A New Dataset on Horizontal Structural Ethnic Inequalities in Thailand in Order to Address Sustainable Development Goal 10. Social Indicators Research, 141(1), 275–297. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-019-02065-4

Share these insights


Have a Question?

This paper is not available open access


, . (2019). ”. , , . .