Reflections on Thailand in the context of the BLM movement

Samaideng Tungdin

In the midst of ostensibly good-faith discussions on Racism in the United States, and more importantly for myself, regarding Thailand, I have found that several key points about Thailand’s systemic racism are often overlooked. I have seen, supported, and engaged in discussions about why we need to hold each other accountable on an individual basis, however, I fear that talking will not solve our societal injustices permanently outside of a brief ‘feel-good’ period where individuals try to reforge culture before material conditions that shape society— and culture— creep up on us and scuttle our brief successes. 

If in the United States, the police are shown to uphold systemic racism, what are some sources and examples of systemic racism in Thailand? Here Capitalism leads to the exploitation of migrant workers, the State alters attitudes towards Chinese people due to National Agenda changes, and the country’s history of Fascism is linked with the erasure and exclusion of communities outside a manufactured ‘national identity’.

To paraphrase and repurpose a Kwame Ture quote: in order for your discourse to be successful, whomever you target your discourse at must have a conscience— i.e. the capacity to think. You cannot talk to a construct; you cannot sit down and convince Capitalism to stop favouring Racism. Capital Accumulation is dependent on lowering the cost of production. If a Capitalist intends to turn a larger profit, he will not decrease the quality of his machines, the quality of his raw resources, nor the dividends and profits destined for his or his shareholder’s pockets. It is more likely for him to slash wages or find labour willing to work for less. In Thailand— and in much of the world— this translates directly to Racism through the existence of cheap migrant labour.

Capital, Labour, and Racism

I pose a simple question: what distinguishes the Thai Labourer from the Burmese Labourer or the Khmer Labourer? I find the answer is not their self-worth, not necessarily their skill, but rather it is their ability to be pushed around and exploited.

The International Labour Organisation and the Solidarity Center have been working with Thai Unions and workers to ensure that the government upholds international labour standards. However, years ago, the spotlight was shone on what is essentially slave labour in the Seafood and Fruit industries as migrant workers were getting their documents seized in order to force them into work— slavery was common in Siamese history, however for it to be present in ‘modern’ Thailand is shameful. 

Even today I have yet to hear of legislation allowing migrant labour to form unions— even though there was some pressure from the United States just two years ago. Thailand’s Labour rights are dodgy at best and nearly non-existent for migrant labour, even with the 2017 NCPO Foreign Work Order, as courts often take the side of the company due to corruption and the capitalist profit motive which forces social institutions to unite against exploited and oppressed people in the defence of the accumulation of capital.

Essentially, aside from Thai society’s subtle racist and xenophobic attitudes, Thailand’s institutions also systematically reinforce and disadvantage those of other nationalities and races— namely Burmese and Khmer in terms of migrant labour.

However, these issues link to people coming from outside of the nation’s borders, what about the oppressed who exist within? Thailand’s many ethnic minorities have gone from successful communities to shadows of their former glory due to the Sakdina system (Siamese caste system) and Siamese auto-imperialism that laid the foundations for Luang Phibunsongkhram’s fascist dreams and his Palingenetic Ultranationalist efforts that included state-sanctioned Sinophobic sentiments and cultural mandates that undermined the diversity of the citizens of both historic Siam and ‘modern’ Thailand.

State, China, and Racism

On that point of Sino-Thai relations, Thailand’s strange relationship with China goes to demonstrate the relationship between the State and Capital Accumulation and how Racism is necessitated by leaders who desire a strong national identity and increased state power.

The ethnic majority of Thailand, the Tai, came from Guangxi in modern-day China. Over time they started developing a distinct culture from the Tai that spread into modern Vietnam, Laos, and so forth. Over time, Thailand benefited from an influx of Chinese migrants that included a lot of manual labourers and rickshaw drivers— a lot can be learned at the Thai Labour Museum near Makkasan Station. Over time, this economic boom soon turned sour as the Chinese labourers rose to become powerful and influential members of society and ethnic Thais became more and more hostile towards their success. In 1914, under a fake name, King Rama 6 (whose statue adorns the entrance of Lumpini Park) published an article called “The Jews of the East”, an anti-semitic and sinophobic rant about how the ethnic Chinese are loyal to their race and money, rather than their King or country. 

The sinophobia only got worse as Siam observed its transition to a ‘constitutional monarchy’ in 1932, but in 1938 Phibun became Prime Minister and tried to counter the economic power of the ethnic Chinese, despite being of Chinese descent himself. This racism towards ethnic Chinese was state-sanctioned and came as a result of his other ultranationalist and fascistic tendencies and edicts. After his removal, and his coup to reinstate himself, Phibun realised that he had an opportunity to further his ideological agenda by allying himself against Mao and the eventual People’s Republic of China. However, one might characterise this as an anti-communist stance, but this foreign policy was coupled with a domestic policy of shutting down Chinese schools, social associations, and the limiting of Chinese immigration, and is, therefore, more in line with an Ultranationalist stance. Therefore, the point of the Anti-Chinese sentiments during Phibun’s time was to divorce any notion of Tai heritage from the exodus from Chinese lands. This further aims to add to the National Mythos which not only deified past Kings, but also tries to assert that Thai society is not only homogenous, but also unique and does not have any roots outside of the borders of the State (which I believe is evidence to support the claim that Phibun’s Nationalism incorporated Palingenetic Ultranationalism, but that’s for another time). I would also argue that Phibun did this to disassociate ‘Chineseness from communism’. There was a similar practice in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Since then, Thailand has grown cosy to the Chinese— as demonstrated by the massive yearly intake of Chinese tourists. You might argue that the sinophobia dissipated over time, however, I would argue that the sinophobia was necessitated by Rama 6 and Phibun’s consolidation of state power and the ossification of national identity. Bismarck engineered war against France as the final move to unify Germany under a single Germanic identity— it is the same here. Pinpointing the ‘Chinese’ as the ‘them’ or the ‘other’ makes it easier for Phibun to manufacture a sense of ‘us’ within the Thai nation-state. Hence, Racism has been employed in the not too distant past as a State tool in Thailand. Furthermore, the PRC supported the Communist Party of Thailand and therefore the anti-communist doctrine of Thailand made it so relations with China would not benefit Thailand as it was aiding the USA in their bombing campaigns in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Today, the sinophobia has been switched off because of the efficiency of the Chinese economic machine, and the other benefits that come with Chinese investment in Thailand. In the pursuit of Capital Accumulation, the State and the ruling classes have agreed that manufacturing positive relations with China— and the Chinese community— are necessary to ensure economic success (given that Thailand knows it could be completely destroyed by China if relations were to deteriorate). 

Ultranationalism, Phibun, and Racism.

Aside from the sinophobia associated with Phibun’s administrations, there is also the matter of his 12 Cultural Mandates that worked to strengthen the national identity mentioned before. 12 is quite a few to unpack, but here are the mandates that focus on the cultural homogenisation of the country. The four mandates that relate to the question of cultural homogenisation are mandates 1,3,9, and 10. 

Mandate 1 says: “The country, people and nationality are to be called ‘Thai’.” “Thai” has been argued to mean many things from “People” to “Free” to even “Free People”. However, it is first and foremost a reference to the ethnic Tai people who migrated here from China. Etymologically various countries are the same, with “Land” (or their language’s equivalent— i.e. the Central Asian ‘stans) as a suffix to the root word which denotes an ethnic group or a “people”. This is how the term “Thailand” was indeed constructed by Luang Wichitwathakan. Do remember that Thailand is locally referred to as ประเทศไทย, transliterated to: The Country of Thai, the Thai Country, or even The Country that is Thai. If that doesn’t qualify as directly linking the Nation-State with Race, then I don’t know what does. Phibun did this in the knowledge that individuals within the border of the nation come from a vast and varied set of cultures and ethnic groups— ranging from the Lisu in the north to the Maniq in the south. The reference to a singular ethnic group as representative of a collection of heterogeneous people is State-sponsored racial erasure. 

Mandate 3 states that citizens of Thailand will “use the name ‘Thai’ to refer to all Thai people, without subdividing them”. This further adds to the points raised from Mandate 1, but also demonstrates a standardisation of “Thainess”. “Thaification” is a process where various ethnic groups and non-dominant cultural practices are replaced by behaviour and practices that are enforced by the dominant Thai ruling class. Given that the seat of governmental and royal power lay in Bangkok and economic power centred around Capital Accumulation is centralised in Bangkok, Central Thailand became Thailand. The dialect spoken by the Central region was enforced Nation-wide, the customs and the traditions of the Central region was enforced Nation-wide, subservience to the State and King was enforced Nation-wide; more erasure. Thankfully, the erasure was unsuccessful and there is still a varied set of traditions around the nation, yet one only wonders what was lost in the erasure process.

Mandate 9 is quite long, and has two main points. The first point concerns the Thai language and how “Thai people must extol, honour and respect the Thai language, and must feel honoured to speak it” as well as ‘teach’ —albeit in a rather ‘condescending’ and linguistically colonial way— Thai to those who do not speak it. Secondly, combining treatment of the Thai language and the erasure of regional and cultural differences, the mandate also states “Thai people must not consider place of birth, residence, or regional accent as a marker of division… Thai people must consider it their duty to conduct themselves as good Thai citizens should, and … instruct those who do not yet know and understand their duty…  to … the Thai nation.” Reading this mandate, one might think that it promotes a sense of unity amongst Thai people, but much like the German unification project, this mandate only serves the creation of an idealised single sense of “Thainess” out of an existent plurality of vibrant and diverse cultures. There is a clear attempt to normalise erasure and exclusion of those who speak other dialects (non-central Thai) as well as the other languages spoken by non-Tai ethnic groups. 

Mandate 10 further works towards Phibun’s dreams of bringing european-style fascism to Thailand. It states that “Thai people should not appear at public gatherings, in public places, or in city limits without being appropriately dressed”. This is not only an example of increased State control, but also the state-sanctioned erasure of culture through the imposition of an ‘appropriate’ style of dress that invalidates the customs and cultures of citizens within Thailand who did not desire to subscribe to european customs. The mandate further states: “inappropriate dress includes wearing only underpants, wearing no shirt, or wearing a wraparound cloth”. This strengthens the argument that the mandate is hiding racial antagonism, as we see that his attitude towards Tradition is neither consistent nor genuine. The ‘wraparound cloth’ (ผ้าขาวม้า) to which I assume he refers to is a staple of Thai clothing of both the Central-Thai and the regional-Thai, and through the invalidation of a cultural practise, he has tried to further build the one-ness of the Thai national identity— all in an attempt to build the Fascistic Ethnostate with the aid of the Palingenetic Ultranationalist notion of ‘national rebirth’.

All of this to say, Thailand has not treated its ethnic groups with much respect. Today, it is the same. An activist for the Karen people, Polajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, was found burned in an oil drum which was dumped in a reservoir in a nature reserve. The last time I heard about oil drums and killings, it was when the Thai state captured and killed Communists in the 70s, so it is no stretch to imagine that this was orchestrated by the State or those loyal to it. The reality is that local activists are suppressed and ethnic minorities are often trivialised and turned into tourist attractions— which does economically benefit some ethnic communities, however, not all are turned into lucrative tourist attractions which disadvantages these groups, as there is no national push or safety net to preserve these cultures. 

In conclusion, not much has really changed in terms of power structures in Thailand’s social and economic organisation, therefore it stands to reason that issues of Racism are still present in Thai society— if not as a result of ignorance, then as a result of centuries of systematic racism that probably started as a group of displaced peoples trying to forge an identity and a home for themselves. With that in mind, those that have and still identify as non-Thais/non-Tais whilst residing within the country’s borders should be given the same rights and respect that a self-identifying Thai would. 

If it’s a better Thailand you want, Thailand can only do better upon its Liberation from that which oppresses the supposedly “Free People” (i.e. Crown, State, and Capital). In terms of what we can do for those protesting as part of the BLM movement, make sure you pitch in wherever you can and listen to the instruction and expertise of those who know more than you—i.e. Black activists and Black intellectuals like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur. Changing the material conditions for these oppressed people will allow them to better break their chains, and it would be a disservice as an Asian not to say: Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.

Further Reading:

The Origin of Modern Official State Ideology in Thailand by Eji Murashima, 1988

Pibulsongkram’s Thai Nation-Building Programme during the Japanese Military Presence, 1941-1945 by Thamsook Numnonda, 1978

Nationalism and Anti-Statehood in Thailand by Gabriel Ernst, 2019

The Art of Not Being Governed (An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia) by James C. Scott, 2009–en/index.htm