It has been previously found that there exist large horizontal structural inequalities between different ethnic groups in Thailand, i.e., exclusion along socioeconomic and political lines, and this research tries to understand why these exist, in areas such as education outcomes, in the case of the Thai Lao.
The Thai Lao are the largest ethnic minority group in Thailand. However, the Thai Lao ethnic group are not recognised by the Thai state, which means their official inclusion is difficult.
As an example of social exclusion, the Thai Lao encounter daily racial prejudice due to their looks, accent, and culture, etc. Notably, Thai Lao women are regarded as the opposite of beautiful due to the Thai conceptualisation of beauty.
As an illustration of economic exclusion, the Thai Lao score poorly on indices like household income.
To exemplify their political exclusion, Thailand is one of the last remaining countries in the world which has centrally appointed provincial governors, and only the Central Thai possess a democratic governance structure, for the capital of the Central Thai region, Bangkok.
In the case study, we asked two different samples about their opinion on the current state of inclusion of the Thai Lao. For instance, we examined what could be done, in terms of decentralisation (including greater fiscal decentralisation), whether a campaign against racial prejudice was needed, and whether is was perceived that the situation was improving for the Thai Lao ethnic group.
One sample was the ‘Establishment’, which included senior governmental officials. The other sample was the “Thai-Lao Local Education Administrators”, who worked in Khon Kaen Province, part of the Thai Lao heartland.
We hypothesised that both groups would have two different viewpoints as to why these structural inequalities existed, and we found that there was a remarkable difference as to how they perceived inclusion/exclusion outcomes for the ethnic group. The two different samples held very different ideas about the prima facie evidence of quantitative structural inequalities facing the Thai Lao.
The Establishment held a conservative, retrograde approach where they either stated the Thai Lao did not exist as an ethnic group, so racial prejudice could not exist, or they stated the Thai Lao group may have encountered ethnic penalties in the past, but that the situation had improved or that things were getting better, so no action was needed. Thus, they appeared to be unaware of, or ignore, the quantitative evidence for ethnic inequality.
On the other side, for the Thai Lao education administrators, the situation was very different. For the most part, they accepted that the Thai Lao did exist as an ethnic group and that they did encounter inequalities and social exclusion due to their looks, accent, and language, etc., as well as economic exclusion.
They perceived inequality and prejudice and largely agreed that the strategy for greater inclusion must include a decentralized government and a purposeful campaign against racial prejudice against the Thai Lao. There was a significant discourse that Thai the Lao people would like their own democratically elected provincial governors, not ones appointed by Bangkok.
Despite the different opinions regarding inclusion and whether discrimination against the Thai Lao was real, both the Establishment group and the local Thai Lao education administrators agreed on further decentralisation of the provinces. However, without concrete policies, t this is a mantra – where in the world do you hear people say “no we want greater centralisation”?
Thus, regarding what is meant by greater decentralisation, what the Thai Lao mean by decentralisation may not be what the Establishment mean. Everyone agrees there should be greater fiscal decentralisation – especially regarding greater budgets allocated to the Northeast, where the Thai Lao are the majority ethnic group.
But, then what this budget is used for is contentious – should it be used to promote cultural and ethnic identity in schools the region, including the Thai Lao language? Should it fund a campaign against racial prejudice? Should it be used to support democratically elected provincial governors’ offices or even the establishment of a political assembly for the Northeast to manage decentralization, as in the Welsh Assembly? Unfortunately, this goes against what the Establishment wants budgets to be decentralised for. They primarily want them to be decentralised for project management reasons, for instance to promote commercial development on a regional basis, rather that to promote socio-political inclusion,
Intriguingly, we asked both samples whether they would support the establishment of an assembly for the Northeast, and the Establishment response was a firm negative, whereas the Thai Lao response, corroborated by other similar research on a bus station poll of Thai lao, was mostly “Yes, our own assembly is something we would consider”. Given that the Thai Lao participants expressed their opinions during a military coup, at a time when sedition and treason along ethnic lines were being raised, two very different discourses existed.
This was a case study which, for the first time, sought to obtain an Establishment viewpoint on the inclusion/exclusion of the Thai Lao, Thailand’s largest, if unrecognized, ethnic minority, as well as a viewpoint from a Thai Lao educator sample. While the number of contributors was low, the case study is nonetheless interesting for the breadth and depth of material collected via its survey instrument as well as the categorization of material according to the concepts of social, economic, and political inclusion.
The perspectives of the two sample groups were collected through a survey, with a thematic focus on the discourses and narratives around social, economic, and political inclusion.
Social inclusion is understood through a multi-level framework that is interconnected with, but separate from, economic inclusion and political inclusion. The survey comprised eleven questions, of which the first ten were ‘Yes/No’ questions and the last was open ended.
The surveys were sent to two groups. The first group can be described as the ‘Establishment’. The survey was sent to 394 senior decision makers from the bureaucracy, legislature, executive and political parties, with an 8.6% response rate.
The second group was ‘Local Thai Lao Education Administrators’, and included 140 people working in municipal education departments. This group had a 27.9% response rate.
These were compared with a third sample consisting of ‘ordinary people’, described in a separate research article.
As this was a qualitative study, the research findings can not be deemed to represent the views of the wider community. They are merely indicative towards a need for further research.
Furthermore, the research was conducted under the 2014-2019 military regime, which may have sharpened the opinion of the ‘Establishment’ towards the ethnic policies in Thailand while subduing the Thai Lao perspective.
John Draper, Peerasit Kamnuansilpa & David Streckfuss (2022) Understanding the ethnic inequality of the Thai Lao through perspectives on promoting social inclusion policy in Thailand in accordance with UN Sustainable Development Goal 10.2, Social Identities, 28:2, 232-251