What Mushrooms Tell Us About Isaan’s Ecological Future

What do mushrooms and Isaan people have in common? They both flourish in difficult places, and are resilient enough to make those places home. Both have been affected by changes in recent decades that were as much economic as ecological: exploitation of labor and forest lands, migration of working people and the disappearance of mushroom habitats.

Guest Editorial by Peera Songkünnatham


Freshly picked het ko which belong to the diverse fungi family of russulaceae, with over 1,900 known species worldwide.

One thing has remained constant, though – Isaan people’s love for picking edible wild mushrooms. This article is a celebration of the joys of picking mushrooms, but also a warning, as the places one found mushrooms before might no longer be there.

Isaan was where I first learned to pick mushrooms, last year during my ethnographic fieldwork. Somewhere in Khueang Nai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, some way in from a two-lane asphalt road beyond a temple and some rice paddies and rubber fields, stood a eucalyptus forest. Tall, equally spaced, in orderly rows, left and right.

On one side, a sign read “Forest Industry Organization | 1983 Plot,” and on the other “1984 Plot.” A monopolistic state enterprise, the Forest Industry Organization started introducing eucalyptus plantations in 1975 to rehabilitate national reserve forestlands as well as to accommodate fast-growing demands for fuel wood. In effect, plantations like this one were saved from being cleared, yet at the same time they were slated for logging for state revenue. Thirty years of monopoly, however, did enable thirty years of flourishing of forest undergrowth.

the best way to find mushrooms is always to return to the places you found them before
—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

At first glance, you wouldn’t expect a bounty of edible mushrooms in a eucalyptus forest. How could they grow on land devoted to a single species? Yet, there they were – in groups or alone, by termite hills, hidden under a bush or dry leaves, or barely above ground. I would learn to appreciate mushrooms in all their distinct varieties – some aromatic, some more phallic than others, mushrooms of all the tints of the rainbow plus white, grey, and black. There were even het phoeng yu-ka, bitter and crunchy purple mushrooms growing on eucalyptus bark.

We were there as casual pickers, our end goal was to cook a big spicy pot of mushrooms that day to share with our families. It was like an adventure game with our team as tutorial, our eyes as skill, our shovel as equipment, our long sleeves and pants as armor, and a lot of luck as a fun variable.

Het ra-ngok sell for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market.

We were not “professional” mushroom pickers who go in the wee hours hunting for mushrooms in specific spots, walking for hours on end with only brief pauses for rest. By the time we went there, the professionals were already sitting under thatched stands by the main road, showcasing their pricey picks. Het pluak – whose long roots grow from termite hills – were the most coveted, some years fetching 300 baht per kilo. Then there were het ra-ngok, their white shells and orange tips glistening like salted egg. These sold for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market, but half that price or less by the roadside. The friend who took me there estimated that the monetary value of the mushrooms from this forest alone – less than 200 rai –  is about one million baht per year.

Several decades ago, forests stood right next to many villages in Isaan and villagers relied on the forest for food. Whenever they went in the forests surrounding their village, they would come out with baskets so full of mushrooms that they didn’t care when they spilled.

Once home, a couple of elderly villagers would sit and look at the pick and hold them up one by one, shaking their head and throwing away suspicious ones, keeping only those they knew were edible and tasty. Few kinds were “trusted” back then – a large majority was tossed out to rot.

Not so anymore – those forests virtually no longer exist. During the 1980s, many of the remaining forests in Isaan were declared degraded and villagers could then legally clear the land for crops and obtain land titles.

As the region’s population leaped from 6.8 million in 1952 to 12 million in 1970, and to 19 million in 1989, forests were cleared for farming. Northeastern Thailand’s sprawling forests covered 102,667 square kilometers in 1952, but by 1973 the number was halved, and almost halved again by 1982. All this time, despite the deforestation, there was less land to farm per person: the ratio decreased from 1.88 rai per person in 1952 to 1.57 in 1989.

What this decrease in number does not account for is the fact that most Isaan people by then had turned to seasonal labor, often in faraway places, or started up small businesses, sometimes replacing their rice agriculture.

With forests cleared, mushrooms still thrived on the edges of irrigated rows of crops and in the extant forests preserved by monks. Due to the scarcity of forestlands, more people flocked to the remaining forests farther away, ultimately leading to increased local knowledge of mushrooms and local competition in these areas.

The morning we went mushroom picking, we had arrived about 6 a.m. – later than many other groups. Villagers within an hour‘s radius in all directions came here, with license plates from Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, Yasothon, and Amnat Charoen provinces.

Sometimes we walked for ten minutes without spotting anything but poisonous mushrooms. Once I came upon a big red mushroom, so big it was falling apart. But my friend’s uncle told me it was already too old – I should leave it on the soil so it could spread again.


The author’s first pick of the morning.

After a couple of hours, we returned to the pickup truck. The most popular question was “man bo? (were you lucky?).” It was a little like discussing the lottery. We showed one another our picks, ate some pork floss sandwiches, and prepared to return home.

This was in mid-2014. When mushroom season came again in 2015, I returned to the forest only to find all the eucalyptus trees logged, felled to feed a burgeoning industry. Minor branches were discarded where they were cut, blocking most walking paths. Only a small portion of the forest was left intact. Most mushroom pickers have now gone elsewhere.

What lies ahead? This uprooted eucalyptus forest will probably be overtaken by nearby villagers in order to cultivate cash crops. But things may turn out differently. A growing number of Thais embrace the cause of forest conservation. Many times, however, conservation is framed as a struggle between non-human nature and (urban) human greed, a frame which excludes foraging and other indigenous uses of forests. If picking mushrooms becomes a “cool” hobby like it has in the U.S., how would young Thais’ imagination of forest conservation be reconfigured? I hope that young conservationists cultivate a nuanced kind of understanding of forests, one where humans are neither greedy encroachers or scrupulous conservers.

Foragers’ relationship to forests will still remain strong. Picking mushrooms is still very much associated with the traditional, rural way of life in Thailand. This year, Matichon Online reported on luk thung star Pai Pongsathorn’s mushroom picking trip with his mother, indicating a loyalty to his cultural origins.

This sense of rootedness is not only good for nostalgia, but also food for imagining a future. Conservationists, for example, could translate their cause in ways that resonates with this sense of rootedness in order to develop better demands of environmental protection policy.

Maybe one of the traits Isaan people possess that mushrooms lack could help us both flourish, and that is memory. Villagers told me that many ecological resources might soon become things of the past: tasty marsh-dependent bullfrogs, lowland buffers for seasonal floods, precious hardwood now being stolen overnight to meet Chinese demand.

But there is hope. Villagers I met have made local agreements to not disturb the village’s san pu ta (ancestral shrine) forest area, and to not smoke out one particular kind of wasp nest, for example. Memory, inherent in these initiatives, forms the basis for reaching community solutions to upcoming ecological scarcity. When we realize that the places we found mushrooms before are no longer there, we may mourn. But we may also remind ourselves to make a place – or rather leave a place – for the mushrooms to flourish.

Peera Songkünnatham was born and raised in Sisaket City. After studying Anthropology and Sociology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Peera is now striking out a path as a freelance writer and translator based in the Northeast.



A Long Way from Home - Isaan Villagers’ Experience of Farmwork in Israel

Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Northeastern Thais have left their farms at home to work as agricultural laborers in Israel, often facing exploitation by manpower agencies and employers. Despite a recent push to improve the working conditions of Thai farmworkers in Israel, their situation often remains precarious.

GUEST EDITORIAL by Matan Kaminer

A Thai farmworker sits in his bedroom in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz in central Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A Thai farmworker sits in his bedroom in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz in central Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Over 22,000 migrant workers, mostly from Isaan, are at work on farms in Israel. Although they are but a small percentage of the total number of Isaan villagers who migrate to work abroad, the Israeli agricultural sector has become completely dependent on their labor.

In some rural settlements, Thais now outnumber Israelis, and in modern Hebrew tailandi has become almost a synonym for “farmworker.” Though wages in Israel are much higher than those in Thailand, workers’ labor rights are often violated and living conditions are sometimes atrocious, as has been documented by Israeli NGO “Workers’ Hotline” and the international organization Human Rights Watch.

I interviewed three Isaan villagers who have worked in Israel about their migrant experience. Though the durations of their stays in Israel are spread over two decades, the picture they present is in some ways very similar: the work is hard and one pays a personal price for going abroad for so long. At the same time, working in Israel has enabled our interviewees to achieve financial goals that would have been impossible otherwise.

However, my three interviewees differed greatly in some aspects of their experience – demonstrating that much depends on the particular farm on which one happens to be employed when in Israel.

Thai laborers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Thai laborers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Large-scale labor migration from Thailand to Israel began around 1993, when the Israeli government took steps to end the massive participation of Palestinian workers in the labor market. These workers, coming from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were judged to be too rebellious following the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 1987-1991, and plans were made to replace them with workers from developing countries. The government began allowing farmers to recruit workers from Thailand, and they quickly became the majority of workers employed on Israeli farms.

Until 2012, in order to obtain work in Israel a Thai laborer would have to contract with a local manpower agency in Thailand. This agency would connect with a manpower agency in Israel , and the worker would then be eligible to receive a visa for a five-year work contract. Careful to prevent the possibility of workers settling in Israel permanently, Israeli authorities limited each worker to one five-year work period, and disallowed married couples from being in the country at the same time.

Manpower agencies charged workers exorbitant fees, ranging up to 370,000 baht. Workers would often spend their first year in Israel working off the debts incurred in order to pay this fee.

In 2012, the Israeli and Thai governments signed a bilateral agreement aimed at cutting out the middlemen who were charging migrants these exorbitant fees, replacing Thai manpower agencies with the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit intergovernmental group. Today the problem of exorbitant fees has been become less severe and migrants pay around 75,000 baht, which go to the IOM and manpower agencies on the Israeli side.

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

However, many other problems associated with migrant life continue. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch found that workers are subject to dangerous and unhygienic living conditions, extremely long working hours, and substandard medical care.

Officially, Thai migrants in Israel are protected by Israeli labor laws, including those regulating the minimum wage and overtime hours. However, a study conducted by myself and Noa Shauer of the Israeli non-governmental organization Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) found that in 2013, none of the migrants who reported their work conditions to the organization were paid according to the law. Their average wage for regular hours stood at around 70% of the legal minimum. Overtime for work of more than ten hours a day, which is quite common in the agricultural sector, was paid at only 55% of the legal requirement. Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions.

Thai migrant workers’ weak negotiation position in Israel is in part due to the “bound” nature of their employment. Clauses in their contracts, as well as their linguistic isolation and lack of acquaintance with the country, make it very difficult for workers to change employers’ behavior.

A Thai agricultural worker in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A Thai agricultural worker in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Thus, even when migrant workers are aware of the substandard nature of the conditions of their employment, there is little they can do to improve their situation. Many migrants say that the working conditions, together with the long hours and sadness of missing home and family, are behind the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among workers.

Some point to drug and alcohol abuse as a possible factor behind the nocturnal deaths of workers, known in Thai as lai tai. These mysterious deaths are also known in Isaan, and some consider them to be caused by evil spirits such as phi mae mai or “widow ghosts.”

Between 2008 and 2013, 43 Thai men perished this way in Israel, yet there has been no systematic investigation into their cause of death. The lack of interest displayed by the Israeli authorities in this case is symptomatic of the general lack of public or state concern for migrant workers’ welfare.

While the workers I spoke to corroborated many of the findings mentioned above, they spoke of the experience of working in Israel as a generally positive one. They said the work enabled them to acquire property and make other monetary gains in life that otherwise they could not have achieved.

The first of my interviewees, Joe – a pseudonym – in his forties, lives in a village near Chumphae in Khon Kaen province. He received us on the ceramic-tile floor of his two-story house and later took us to a field where he grows sugarcane – a field bought with money he earned while working in Israel in the 1990s.

Joe’s distant relatives, Maew and Jaey (also pseudonyms), live in a village in Udon Thani province that has sent many workers to Israel over the years. Their stories exemplify the wide variety of working conditions found in Israel.

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the payments received from their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the payments received from their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Maew, also in her forties, worked on a farm in the hyper-arid Jordan Valley, near Jericho in the occupied Palestinian territories. She worked up to 14 hours a day tending vegetables in greenhouses and made between 35,000 and 45,000 baht a month, of which she was able to save about 25,000 to send home to her family. In employing her for such long hours for such low pay (by Israeli standards), her employers violated the local minimum wage law and possibly other laws as well.

Maew’s younger relative Jaey made the same wages, but working only six hours a day milking cows near Acre in Israel’s north, in proximity to urban centers and in a much milder climate zone.

One cause for the difference may be the fact that Maew worked on a moshav or collective settlement, and Jaey on a kibbutz or communal settlement; the latter tend to be both wealthier and more committed to the historic humanistic values of the Israeli “labor settlement” movement.

The co-existence of such huge disparities in labor and wage conditions is clearly an effect of the “bound” employment regime. If workers could freely choose whom to work for, conditions would undoubtedly equalize, with better results for workers like Maew.

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestills.org

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestills.org

Although she is aware of these disparities, Maew did not react to them with anger or indignation. She told me that she was glad of the opportunity to work long hours and make as much money as possible to send home, and did not see the fact that her relative Jaey had made the same amount of money working about half the hours as unjust.

Maew and Jaey also touched upon another interesting and troubling issue. They told me that villagers in the area who had worked in Israel were approached by lawyers claiming that they could get access to Israeli “tax refunds” for them.

According to Maew, hundreds of locals had signed papers for these lawyers but none had seen any money. Their story corroborates reports of Israeli lawyers representing Thai workers to sue the employers for severance pay – another legal requirement that is often unheeded.

The NGOs are worried that these lawyers may be engaged in unscrupulous practices vis-à-vis their clients – a concern that Maew’s story seems to strengthen, as villagers signed up and never heard anything back or received any money, and as they may have been misinformed as to the nature of the legal proceedings.

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Labor migration is a global phenomenon, linking countries across the world in a chain of human movement that embodies both opportunity and exploitation. The workers I spoke to – who did not know me well and may have hesitated to be completely forthright – spoke of working in Israel as, overall, a positive experience.

Yet even this must be understood against the background of the alternative – either going to work elsewhere in Thailand or abroad, where conditions and pay are often worse, or being mired in unemployment and poverty back home in Isaan.

Compared to some of their neighbors, those villagers who are given the opportunity to do backbreaking work for below-minimum pay, thousands of kilometers from home, for years on end, may be the lucky ones.

Matan Kaminer is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research is on Thai migrant farmworkers in Israel. Additional reporting and translation by Disaraporn Phalapree.

Letter to the Editor: Ratanawan Monastery Reflects a Globalizing Isaan

This weekend I went to Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) to attend a community-based ceremony called Gratitude to the Teacher at Ratanawan Monastery. Located on a hilltop amid perennial green forest, it is considered a forest-tradition temple, a sub-category of Theravada Buddhism. This type of tradition is interspersed throughout Isaan — you may be familiar with Luang Pu Man Phurithatto, who made a debut of forest-tradition Buddhism in the region. Exceptional is the fact that roughly half the monks are of non-Thai origin, a number of whom are Caucasian. As such, the locals always call Ratanawan “wat phra farang” (temple of foreign monks). I have come here several times and am moved by the rites, be it monastic or lay.

What stands out the most is the racial diversity there. I noticed young ceremony-participants—in teenage years—who appeared Caucasian while their female parent looked Thai. They must have been children of couples with transnational marriages. The picture evokes part of the books on the Vietnam War I had been reading prior to settling this anthropological field trip. Historically, it was through the concentration of US bases in Isaan that allowed for intimate bonds with the locals. Since then transnational marriage, preferably with Western-looking men—or “farang” in Thai vernacular— has become ubiquitous to the extent that plenty of female villagers wish to marry “farang.”

The abbot of Ratanawan is a foreigner, as are plenty of monks there, and can speak English — the main lingua franca. To me, he acts as a cultural intermediary, ushering in people of the West and the East together into the same community. Mixed-blood families, as observed, are keen to lend a helping hand to monastic chores; informed of special ceremonies where the crowd is expected, they organize makeshifts almshouses, giving out free foods to attendees and visiting nearby villagers. It shows a growing locality derived from international co-operation. In addition, there were 10-odd Chinese-speaking people. Knowing Chinese and overhearing their conversation, I recognized their accent, which suggests their homeland was of the South Sea, namely Malaysia and Singapore. They communicated with the abbot in English. I realized that they were the same group I had seen at Ratanawan in early May this year when I had visited. Not only are they spiritually committed to forest-tradition Buddhism, but they also furnish support. I recognized the Chinese name as the chairman of the ceremony, an acolyte, acclaimed throughout loudspeakers on that day.

Isaan in fact comes to my attention since the community is expanding to embrace cosmopolitanism. And because its people account for majority of Thais, I believe, the region is significant in determining Thailand’s trajectory. Here, the factor of “temple” is important. Important, because, referring to Ratanawan, it is now taking a vital role in globalizing Isaan. The locals themselves can entertain global elements, from language to ideology, while at home. I am often very surprised that more and more Isaanners can speak English—good English. It is decent proof of Isaan approaching globalism.

Patrick Huang, Bangkok

NEW SECTION: Letters to the Editor

The Isaan Record is happy to announce a new section in the publication: Letters to the Editor. We invite readers to share their thoughts by sending comment to editor@isaanrecord.com. Please be aware that any published letter or comment might be subject to editing for clarity. (We apologize for republishing a Letter to the Editor from the other day, but The Isaan Record wanted to better highlight this new section.)

Observations about Northeasterners and Ethnicity

I have been traveling to Isaan quite often, especially during the past few years. But I do not consider myself a traveller, but a traveller-cum-anthopologist. I love observing, jotting down, and, most importantly, talking with the locals. I could notice a big difference in various parts of the region.

Northeastern Thailand, or Isaan, is a most squabbling territory where the issue of inter-ethnicities, primarily against central Thai ethnicity, comes into sight. Northeasterners are of more ethnically related to Laotians as shown in cultural manifestation of language and rituals.

The people in those days may have appreciated a more patriotic sense of being Lao than Thais. However, when Marshall Pleak Phibunsongkhram was in office, Thailand declared a nationalist propaganda through state decrees or rattaniyom (รัฐนิยม). Non-Thai people were pushed to be Thais. Northeasterners underwent ethnic persecution in that the Thai government terminated their ancestral identities, yet cultivating central Thai practices. For instance, schools could only teach Thai, not Lao.

Chon-klum-noi (ชนกลุ่มน้อย) or ethnic minorities are pervasive in Isaan. The word chon-klum-noi is pejorative, implying that the people lack ability to survive by themselves, considered government’s liability. As for main occupations, “previous” Northeasterners depended largely on agriculture and sadly, as the terrains are arid, here comes emigration. Those who are “breadwinners” move to Bangkok where they are promised a higher income or high enough to send remittances home, even if their jobs are often of the working-class.

A number of agricultural communities have been transforming into industries, small or middle-sized. The emergence of a nouveau riche is observed too. People, inclusive of ethnic minorities, get higher and higher educations.

I speculate that because of the readjustment of social construction, there comes the new middle class, who are self-reliant and even can give the nation substantial economic contributions. Their way of thinking is also changing in that, since they are already have that “potential,” they need more of self-government.

The problem is: our military regime now assumes “centralization” in which the power is monopolized by the government. I opine that it is contradicting to social reality of the present-day Isaan.

Patrick Huang, Bangkok

GUEST EDITORIAL: Thai has the Highest Percentage of Second-Language Speakers among Major Languages

If Ethnologue says 67% of Thai speakers speak it as a second language, what language are those people speaking as their first language? And what does this mean for Thailand’s divided politics?

By Karl Victor

The organization Ethnologue has a peculiar statistic in its 2015 report on Thailand. The Thai language comes in 22nd in the highest number speakers (Figure 1), depending on the rendering. This is not surprising, but the figure showing that there are twice as many second-language Thai speakers than first-language Thai speakers is.

In fact, compared to the other major languages in the world, Thai is in a class by itself, with 67% of Thai speakers speaking it as a second language. The next closest is German with 56%, followed by French at 48%, Russian at 43%, and Urdu at 41% (Figure 2).


Source: Adapted from Vistawide Languages & Cultures

Broadly speaking, we might the ratio between those who speak a language as their first and second languages, according to three categories:

1) Coterminous formations

2) Imperialism and lingua franca

3) Multi-ethnic empires

Examples of the first type are Japanese, Polish, Korean, and Italian. These languages are spoken almost exclusively as a first language and the percentage of those speaking it as a second language is less than one per cent: the language virtually does not extend beyond its geographical borders.

An example of the second type is French, which became a lingua franca for the nineteenth century through imperialism and its influence in law. English is another, with a third of all English speakers using it as a second language. Its spread can be attributed to English and American conquest, both in terms of colonialism and cultural production. German is notable as more than half of those speaking it speak it as a second language.

A third type results from pre-modern empires established over what we would call now multi-ethnic polities. Russian is a good example, as there are second-language Russian speakers strewn across the former Russian Empire and then USSR. It is an empire whose borders disintegrated and ended up merely as “Great Russia” or “Russia Proper.”

Bildschirmfoto-2015-09-02-um-23.00.13Siam/Thailand stands out within Southeast Asia. Avoiding direct colonialization allowed the traditional elite to retain their power unhindered. The ability of the Bangkok elite to adapt the European concepts of race and the mechanism of the census has masked non-Thai ethnicities to create the impression that the vast majority of the population was safely and clearly of one race.

Siam/Thailand imposed Thai as both official language and language of instruction. The highly centralized state made Bangkok the focal point of the culture and national life. Thai-ification has always been hierarchical. Other Tai-speaking people in the kingdom were and are looked on with a certain level of suspicion. They could study upward, go to the best universities in Bangkok, attempt to hide their accent and background, profess enduring love for the monarchy, and even, sometimes, take high positions in government—but yet at the end of the day, they were something less than the pure Thais of Siam Proper.

Despite the resurgence of values of hierarchy since the new rise of the royalists from 2005 on, there is a belief held by many Thais that if they are part of the same race, then all within that race should be treated with respect.

Thai-ification worked for a century, and there have been just enough families in the past that have benefitted from the present system that potential non-Thai ethnic identities have remained dormant. However, there is within it a promise that all Thais will benefit more equally, that their votes will be held in respect, and that there will or should be a reversal of the kind of centralization that benefits those outside of Bangkok and nearby provinces. If fulfilled under Thai-ness, then the tension of a submerged, latent ethnic conflict subsides.

Bildschirmfoto-2015-09-02-um-23.04.52As to the question of what language those people speaking Thai as a second language are speaking as their first language, the answer is “Lao.” Ever since the first census in Siam in 1904, there has been an attempt by the Thai state to deny that the people in the North and Northeast are Lao.

It is understandable in a way because had “Lao” been a racial category in that 1911 census, there would have been no majority “race” in the country. Instead, the population would have been officially divided into two very large groupings—the Thai and the Lao (Figure 3). There would not have been a “minority problem.” If claiming Lao ancestry were to suddenly become popular, the Thai state’s survival, the status quo would itself be in question.

Speakers of Lao in the North and Northeast have seen the prime minister they elected into office dismissed by the courts twice, overthrown in a coup twice, and election results nullified twice. Such antics, if continued, could provoke resistance and rebellion along age-old and not-completely-forgotten ethnic lines.

Draft Constitution Neglects Minority Rights of Millions

This editorial provides an analysis of the 2015 Draft Constitution using the unofficial English translation here. The Thai version is available here.

By John Draper, Guest Contributor

In the draft constitution, there is no explicit mention of minorities or minority rights, making this constitution the only one in ASEAN to not have a provision for such rights. In addition, Thai is not specified in the constitution as the national language, meaning there is no recognition of other languages, nor a framework for supporting minorities along ethnolinguistic lines.

Together, these omissions make the proposed Thai constitution the most backwards in ASEAN and the one least compliant with treaty obligations in the area of linguistic human rights, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all of which have been ratified by Thailand.

In the Northeast, this affects approximately 18 indigenous ethnicities, primarily the Thai-Lao, the Northern Khmer, the Khorat, and the Phu Thai, as well as several million integrated Thai-Chinese.

Using standard predictions of language death rates proposed by a leading authority on language, David Crystal, it is likely that all those ethnolinguistic groups with populations of less than 500,000—all but a handful in the Northeast—will experience the erasure of the language aspect of their identities by 2100. This basically means that while the song forms of these minorities may survive into the next century, their children will not understand those songs. This represents a massive loss of Thai cultural heritage in the Northeast.

Section 5 of the constitution includes the standard provisions against discrimination based on race : “The Thai people, irrespective of their origins, sexes or religions, shall enjoy equal protection under this Constitution.” Also under the heading of “Human Rights,” Section 34 states: “Unjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of the difference in origin, race, language, sex, gender, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic or social standing, religious belief, education or training, or constitutionally political view shall not be made.”

However, there is passing mention of the concept of ethnicity. Chapter 2: Directive Principles of Fundamental State Policies, mentions, in Section 83 (5): “The State shall strengthen local community in the following matters…: (5) protection of indigenous and ethnic groups to maintain their identities with dignity.”

While such recognition is an advance on the former constitution in terms of specificity, it has essentially been the position of the National Economic and Social Development Board in its five-year plans as implemented by state ministries such as the Ministries of Education and of Culture for the past 15 years.

In terms of how this applies to the Northeast, it should be noted that the Thai state in the past has admirably tackled the issue of race in the region – on paper. Its 2011 report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, available here, is remarkably enlightened. Building on Mahidol University’s 2005 Ethnolinguistic Map of Thailand project, it declares Thailand to be a multi-ethnic, pluralistic country and acknowledges the existence of 62 ethnic groups in Thailand, belonging to five language families.

In an approach informed by the latest research and detailing the state’s evolution of the understanding of the ethnic issue since the 1990s, it first lists and describes in detail three main ethnic groups in Thailand: the mountain peoples or “Persons on the Highland,” the “Sea Gypsies,” and the “Malayu-descended Thais.”

It then describes a fourth group, “other ethnic groups,” under the heading “Ethnic Groups in the Northeast,” with a detailed table listing all the ethnic groups in the Northeast except for Thai-Chinese. This is reproduced below:

Table 3: No. of Ethnic Group Population in the Northeast (Esan) by Language Family Group


Crucially, the Thai Lao identity is recognized in this 2011 report for the UN Committee in a way not seen outside academic circles and in doing so undoes nearly a century of the systematic erasure of the largest minority identity in Thailand. This erasure, via a program of assimilation, began in the late 19th century with the consolidation and annexation of the Khorat Plateau and was accelerated in the 1939-1942 hyper nationalism-driven 12 State Cultural Mandates which changed the name of Siam to Thailand, made Thai the national language, and disappeared by diktat all the minority identities in Thailand. The historical treatment of the Thai Lao and their crucial importance to understanding Thai political development, including in the Thaksin era, has recently been highlighted in the English-speaking public sphere by the anthropologist Charles F. Keyes.

The 2011 report’s description of the situation in the Northeast is sympathetic to the problems of the region’s other minorities. In particular, the Kuy, Yogun and Bru are mentioned as facing extinction.

However, the description regarding the relationships between the peoples of the Northeast is somewhat unusual, “Even though there are diverse ethnic groups in the Esan region… due to the generosity and kind-heartedness of the Esan people in general, as well as their experience of interrelating with people of diverse ethnicities, the Esan people of different ethnic groups mingle well and always welcome people from other places. This background is like a special force that unites them and creates a drive for them to relate more with people in the other regions.”

Nonetheless, submitted as it was in 2011, it completely overlooks Thai-Thai Lao interactions, including widespread destruction in the Northeast in May 2010, mainly focusing on violence against symbols of Thai national rule, including the arson of provincial administrative halls. Indeed, it might be argued that the prevention of additional ethno-political violence in May 2014 was one of the unstated reasons which drove the Thai military to intervene in its May 22 coup.

Speakers of Lao Isaan, adapted from Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand, Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, 2005

Speakers of Lao Isaan, adapted from Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand, Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, 2005

The draft constitution of 2015 is obviously a retrograde step compared to the progressively-minded report to the UN committee combatting racism. It ignores the more normative constitutions of its neighbors regarding minority rights; is apparently oblivious to the pattern of pluralistic progress put in place since the 1997 Constitution and developed in partnership between major Thai universities, UN organs such as UNESCO and UNICEF, as well as indigenous organizations themselves such as the Tribal Assembly of Thailand and the Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association; and it overlooks its treaty obligations.

Thailand cannot portray itself as a pluralistic country in its reports to supra-national organizations such as the United Nations while failing to put in place organic legislation or at least constitutional safeguards to support minority ethnolinguistic rights, such as the stalled draft of National Language Policy. Nor can it, according to its own draft constitution, grant any measure of autonomy to the Thai Malayu, who now exercise limited elements of Sharia law in the three southern provinces collectively named the Deep South, without providing for autonomy for the Thai Lao and other major minorities such as the six million Khon Mueang of the North.

The discrepancy between the “Thainess” of the draft constitution and the hard-won scientifically-based developments in Thai academia, Thai concepts of pluralism, and Thai understanding of their own history as embodied in the 2011 report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, is obvious. It represents a massive reality gap between how radical conservative elements of Thailand’s socio-political spectrum portray the country to its own people in local media and how Thailand could—and still can—develop itself in this crucial field of minority rights in partnership with the international community.

 Thailand cannot continue to dumb down its own population and aim to assimilate rather than integrate and equalize. Further, in recent high-level support for the concept of pan-Thainess based on pseudoscience it risks more than becoming a pariah state; it invokes a specter of xenophobia and the march to authoritarianism buoyed by the chauvinism, which harbors the conceit of the natural leadership of a superior race.

The draft constitution suggests valuable political reforms and is a major intellectual work in its own right. While the promise of reconciliation is there, its inward-looking nature and the lack of any appreciation for minority rights will be its own undoing in the years to come unless it is itself reformed as a matter of urgency.



After having read this article, you may at first see the Thai military as the “bad guys.” This would, however, be to fall into the trap of dualism. The Thai military developed Thainess through the filters of British imperialism, French colonialism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism, as well as the bushido concept and Japanese imperialism. More recently, their institutional memory includes some of the worst forms of counter-insurgency and psychological warfare imaginable, acquired during the dirty wars of the Cold War period. And most recently, fourth generation warfare and the technology that facilitates the surveillance state have informed Thai military thinking.

One result of this mentality is that the study of Chakri-period dynastic history in Thailand has been criminalized through the lese majéste laws, seemingly against the wishes of those the law would seek to protect. This death of history – a history dominated by the interactions of an absolute monarchy (and now a strong form of constitutional monarchy) with peoples now minorities in Thailand – has supported processes of assimilation rather than equalization. All this has been documented in the academic literature, a literature that cannot in its entirety be read or studied in Thailand.

Still, the Thai military is not “the enemy”. It is a product of a system and consists of individuals, ones that does not necessarily understand why it is a tragedy that many Thai Lao children reject the “Lao” part of their identity nor why it is a tragedy that the majority of Thai Lao children’s cultural identity has been erased to the extent that they do not know they used to have a civilization including a rich literary heritage. In the quest to portray Thailand as a utopia of Thainess, those in the Thai military may not understand these tragedies because the study of history in Thailand has been turned into a pseudo-science and because the study of its sister science, philosophy, is not promoted as part of a holistic education.

You may, on having read the article, feel that what has happened and that what is happening in Thailand constitutes a crime – a crime against humanity. You would not be alone. Cultural genocide was written into the draft Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and removed at the last moment because of the sensitivities of the period and of the crime itself. Alternative names for what is happening in Thailand, known to some reading this introduction, are ethnocide and linguicide.

This does not mean the Thai military is guilty of a crime. The Nuremberg Trials essentially made the point that individuals are guilty of crimes, not peoples or institutions. And, those of you who are familiar with Buddhism know that it teaches absolute compassion for the human condition. In fact, individuals in the Thai military, as epitomized by General Prayut, appear to be desperately engaged in a war on endemic, embedded corruption in the Thai polity in bid to stave off sanctions by the West due to the appalling crimes against human rights taking place in Thailand every minute of every hour of every day, including the trafficking and slavery of minority children.

In this bid, the Thai military as an institution is also taking on the “cleaning house” of an entire country. General Prayut himself, and in some ways the whole socio-political system, have been demonstrating signs of increasing cognitive dissonance due to the enormity of this task of attempting to purge corruption from one of the world’s most corrupt states. Thailand is corrupt if only because of the accidents of history, its geographical position and the size of its population. But, the underlying psychology of Thai client-patronage networks which support corruption existing within a social system prioritizing Buddhist values and thereby rejecting materialism and promoting a path towards goodness also creates such a dissonance. Still, the pervasive extent of political, bureaucratic, police and military corruption is perhaps only just being appreciated by the Thai establishment, which seeks to promote such goodness.

In the words of a Thai metaphor, the eyes of some in the Thai military are likely only now, because they have sought to implement broad reforms not seen in a generation, being brightened regarding the massive task before them. This may be a sudden psychological shock for some of them. On issues such as slavery in the fishing industry, on forest reform, on education, and even on the pricing of lottery tickets, the Thai military seems both exasperated and at a loss. For this, in the Buddhist tradition, they deserve compassion.

If you understand and agree with the basic premises in this postscript and sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the article above, you may feel a moral obligation to help those determined to spread and develop a Thainess based on the fundamental premise of a multi-ethnic state which recognizes the reality of both triumphs and tragedies in Thailand’s own history – one that cannot at present be argued for by Thai ethnic groups because of the overwhelming discourse of pan-Thaism currently being produced by the Thai military. Furthermore, in the ultimate tragedy, the majority of these minorities not only do not know – cannot know – their own histories, they do not know they have rights under treaties like the one mentioned in the article.

If, after reading the article, you do want to help, please post it to lists, to websites, to Facebook, and to friends and colleagues via email. Requests to post the article to websites should be directed to the original copyright owner, The Isaan Record (editor@isaanrecord.com). The Thai military needs to be helped to understand that there is an alternative future for Thailand which does not rest upon rejecting a model constructed of both pluralism and of individual rights and responsibilities in favor of totalitarian authoritarianism. It needs to understand the draft constitution must be amended to include minority rights, and it needs to understand why.

John Draper is a project manager with the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and writes for the Khon Kaen School.

International Mother Language Day: Implications for Isaan

Without an official language policy, Thailand’s many ethnolinguistic minorities cannot experience equality.

By John Draper, Guest Contributor


International Mother Language Day has been celebrated since 1999 and promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This past Saturday marked International Mother Language Day, and while it is not particularly celebrated in Thailand, there were a couple of academic seminars in Chiang Mai and at Mahidol University in Bangkok. It is a difficult day to celebrate in Thailand, at the best of times, due to the fact there is no official national language policy, nor much affirmative action for approximately 70 ethnic minorities in Thailand.

Around 14 ethnolinguistic minorities live in Isaan, which has a population of approximately 19 million. Most of these are from the Tai-Kadai language family, with around 15 million being Thai-Lao, or Western Lao—there are three sub-families, the Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak—and another 156,000 who are Phu Thai. An estimated two million are Thai Chinese, mainly intermarried with the Thai Lao, and over a million are from the Mon-Khmer language family— mainly the Northern Khmer.

In particular, the Lao have a history of warfare against their southern neighbors that dates back to the period of the Kingdom of the Million Elephants under the White Parasol (1354-1707), which jockeyed for control of populations and tributes with the fellow Tai Kingdom of Sukhothai (1238-1583), and gave way to the Tai Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1351-1767). A major Lao “rebellion” in 1826-1829 against the pre-modern Kingdom of Siam saw the Kingdom of Vientiane obliterated and its people dispersed through forced marches southwards into the annexed Khorat Plateau and beyond.

In Thailand, the current interim military government may be praised for not interfering with these potentially political seminars on language. There is no doubt that language, especially when combined with ethnic rights, can be political. The self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is well known for his attempts to sing Thai-Lao folk songs during his video phone-ins on stages in 2008-2014 and thus “playing the ethnic card.”

Consequently, Thailand faintly experienced the possibility of ethnopolitical civil war, and rumors of separatism, in both the Northeast and in the North this past year. The North is the former Kingdom of Lanna, which fell to King Taksin of Thonburi in 1775, but nearly survived into the 20th century in the form of the Siamese vassal state of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai (1802-1884). In response to the recent separatist rumors, the Ministry of the Interior’s Internal Security Operations Command has conducted national reconciliation forums in Isaan and stressed how the Tai peoples once controlled a swathe of territory from Southwest China (the Sipsong Panna) down to Malaysia, east into Cambodia and west as far as India, and how disunity has caused the loss of Tai control over these territories.

The main problem is that this approach to reconciliation only stresses the similarities and does not show the main differences separating the Central-Thais from the Thai-Lao and from other major ethnolinguistic groups in the Northeast. In fact, Thailand has started accommodating ethnic minorities over the last decade. No language is banned, most can be heard on community radios and sometimes on television, and ethnic identities are promoted for their tourism potential. However, without a national language policy establishing equality, with Thai as a de jure national language, this is not enough to prevent ethnopolitical differences being exploited in the future.

IMLD was introduced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Multicultural Organization (UNESCO) and calls upon United Nations members "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world."

IMLD was introduced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Multicultural Organization (UNESCO) and calls upon United Nations members “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

Just ask the Welsh how they feel about Welsh. It is not that all Welsh people are avidly learning the language—only around 15% are literate. The point is that they voted in a referendum in 1997 to be in charge of managing their own local government, resulting in the 1998 Government of Wales Act and the subsequent Government of Wales Act 2006, and then in 2012 the Welsh passed the National Assembly for Wales (Official Languages) Act. This act makes Welsh one of Wales’ two official languages, and is designed to bring equality to Welsh in Wales, meaning any Welsh person should be able to live all their life in Wales only speaking Welsh in their education and in all contacts with officialdom. It is an excellent example of language policy by a devolved government under a reasonably enlightened parliamentary democracy—the United Kingdom (UK).

Which brings us to the People’s Republic of China, often criticised for not being a reasonably enlightened parliamentary model. It is unusual for the West and China to agree on human rights issues and any writer is taking a risk if holding up China to be a bastion of human rights. But, remarkably, China has 56 recognised ethnicities. Its treatment of its over 1 million Tai (Dai) minority is about as good as it gets in China—Xishuangbanna (based on the historical Sipsong Panna)—is an autonomous state of the kind the Dalai Lama is calling for in Tibet.

Chinese attitude toward its minorities is mainly pragmatic –equality between Han and Dai had been promoted as early as the 1910’s in order to bring stability to the south-western frontier in Yunnan, and China reached out to the area with medical assistance from 1949. In 1953, Xishuangbanna first became an autonomous region, and the Dais, together with a dozen other minorities, were permitted their own alphabet and printed educational matter under a bilingual Dai/Mandarin program—a bold step for a regime which has otherwise linked its success, as has the Thai state, to standardising a single writing system and the accompanying monolithic bureaucracy.

Xishuangbanna became an autonomous prefecture in 1955 and in 1987 passed the Law of the Xishuangbanna Dai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture for Self-Government to bring it into line with Chinese national law on regional national autonomy, and for most of its history it has been led by an ethnic Dai. Another similar Dai province, also in Yunnan, is Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. Under Chinese affirmative action measures, like other recognised minorities, the Dai taxes raised in these states are all spent in the state. There are also quotas for university entrance positions, and the central government promotes infrastructure development and reserves high-level positions for Dais.

The pragmatism exercised by China in its affirmative action also has a geopolitical background: its policies are based on the Marxist-Leninist theoretical underpinnings of equality of national minorities, together with equality of languages and cultures, and territorial autonomy, as in the Soviet states model. While all this did not work out particularly well for the USSR, Chinese academics, who studied the fall of the USSR, concluded that the theory was not at fault, but that a lack of equality together with power imbalances in practice was the root of the problem.

These are precisely the same conclusions that led the UK’s Labour government into passing the Government of Wales Act and the present UK Conservative/Liberal coalition into granting more rights to Scotland, preventing its independence. These are also the conclusions that may inexorably lead the Kingdom of Thailand, under a constitutional monarchy, to grant regional and provincial autonomy to its ethnic minorities via a decentralization program and an accompanying national language policy.

For a country that effectively stopped mentioning it had any Thai-Lao citizens since the 1910s, such a decision may be more symbolic than world-changing. Cynically, decentralizing and granting language rights is an exercise in granting just enough rights and liberties to prevent real power being devolved, while benefiting from the political stability it would bring and profiting from the side effects, such as more ethnic tourism. Optimistically, it is a means of initiating decentralized government to be more responsive to local needs and a way to reduce graft by weakening the chains of corruption. Linguistically and culturally, it would bring equality to all Northeastern Thai children, including the Thai-Lao, Thailand’s Northern Khmer, and the Phu Thai.

Internationally, the move would comply with numerous UN treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and would make International Mother Language Day a day to celebrate throughout the “land of freedom.”

John Draper is a sociolinguist with a first degree from Oxford University in Modern History and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Southern Queensland. He is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme.

PISA Thailand Regional Breakdown Shows Inequalities between Bangkok and Upper North with the Rest of Thailand


As reported previously in The Isaan Record, there are clear inequalities in Thai students’ academic achievement, and these are easily seen in official Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) Results by province. These results have been seen to broadly follow ethnolinguistic and class groupings, with Bangkok, home to wealthier ethnic Central Thais, noticeably outperforming other areas and ethnicities. This was visible in the fact that 15-16-year old Central Bangkok students achieved a mean score of 50.6/100% in the Thai language in 2010, compared to a mean of 39.0/100% for the median northeastern province, Mahasarakham – a difference of nearly 12%.

In an article in The Nation on December 5th, 2013, it was revealed that Thai students’ results in the Organization for Economically Developed Countries’ Programme for International Student Tests (PISA) had improved from 2009-2012. This test also looks at the achievement of Thai 15 year olds, with Thailand being one of 65 countries and economies involved.

The 2009 results were 421 in reading, 425 in science, and 419 in mathematics. The recently released 2012 results were 441 in reading, 444 in science, and 427 in mathematics. However, Dr. Sunee Klainin, the manager of the PISA Thailand Project, attributed the higher scores to the performance of demonstration schools and the Princess Chulabhorn’s College schools. She also pointed out that half of Thai students tested did not achieve a Band 3 or higher in mathematics, while around a third did not achieve a Band 3 in science or reading.

What do these scores mean? The definitions of the PISA levels for reading and mathematics are available here. There are six bands for mathematics. Students testing in Band 3 or lower – half of Thai students aged 15 – means they have little problem-solving ability in mathematics.

Likewise, in reading, a third of Thai students aged 15 are not able to relate a text to everyday knowledge and find and link multiple parts of a text.

What about the regional breakdown for Thailand? To date, this has not been included in the PISA 2012 regional data sheet (available here), which lists regional breakdowns for 14 of the PISA countries and economies. In fact, the regional breakdown for Thailand has never been publicly reported in the media. However, a regional breakdown was reported in a technical document published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the ASEAN Secretariat in late 2013.[i] (Also available from a web link on the OECD Centre for Development website, here).


Figure: PISA scores in Thailand, by subject and region
















Upper North






Lower North






Upper Northeast






Lower Northeast












National Average





Source: The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST).

Note: PISA scale was set such that approximately two-thirds of students across OECD countries score between 400 and 600 points. Gaps of 72, 62 and 75 points in reading, mathematics, and science scores, respectively, are equivalent to one proficiency level.


In math, the average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North, where Chiang Mai has been an academic powerhouse for some time. The Upper Northeast fares slightly better than the Lower Northeast likely because it includes the major urban centers of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Interestingly, the average Central region student also scores very low compared to the average Bangkok student, and this may be because of differences in the quality of the schools. One possible explanation for the much lower average score for a student in the South is because it includes the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani.

In science, there is a similar pattern. The average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North and the Upper Northeast, with the Upper Northeast still well behind Bangkok.

Can we correlate the statistics with ethnic identity? It certainly looks like the scores of the Northeast Thailand students can be correlated with the Thai Lao ethnolinguistic identity. In the Lower Northeast, where there are a million ethnic Khmers, the scores are lower, but without a detailed understanding of which provinces are included, it is difficult to say. What is interesting is that the average student from the Central Thai ethnolinguistic identity also scores low outside Bangkok.

One of the standard explanations for these differing scores is poverty. Poverty is certainly a factor in tertiary enrollment in Thailand.[ii] While poverty is also a factor in PISA achievement, the 2012 PISA figures note that the socio-economic background (class) of Thai students has an impact on both performance and the performance gap that is actually better than the OECD averages. Another issue then may be the inequality of access to resources, especially in more rural areas populated by ethnic minorities.

In response to the poor Thai PISA 2012 results, Professor Gerald Fry made five recommendations in an article in The Nation of December 23, 2013. He suggests additional factors in the low scores may be a lack of equity in resource allocation, an emphasis on quantity (buildings and personnel) rather than the quality of people, the lack of a strong reading culture, and a lack of expenditure on Research and Development. He also notes there is the possibility that students may be scoring low because their first language is not Thai. In other words, they may simply not understand the written instructions or how to write the short analyses in Thai required by the PISA tests.

Overall, the Thailand regional breakdown and the country PISA scores make for tragic results. Thailand is a whole PISA level behind the OECD averages of 494 for mathematics, 496 for reading and 501 for science. As also pointed out by Professor Fry in his article, it is also behind Vietnam, a newcomer to the PISA tests and a developing country compared to Thailand’s status as a newly industrialized country.

The gap in PISA levels is the difference between 15-year-old Thai children being able to solve problems or not. And, for the first time we can see from the PISA statistics themselves where those differences are geographically. They are the same kind of differences that can be seen in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey results from 2011 for Thai Primary 4 and Thai Secondary 2 students’ scores, as reported in The Nation on December 12, 2012.

There is an urgent need for a public discussion of these regional figures and what they mean for the future of the Thai education system. This public discussion should be constant and sustained until the scores of the children of the Northeast – and those of the other regions stricken by poor results – can equal the scores of the children of Bangkok.


About the Author: John Draper is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme (ICMRP; see www.icmrpthailand.org and www.facebook.com/icmrpthailand).


[i] OECD. (2013). Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013: With Perspectives on China and India. Available at http://books.google.co.th/books?id=c8vri8vPvmIC&pg=.

[ii] Ibid., p. 207.

OP-ED: Thai Migrant Workers' Return to Libya is Premature

In early February, Department of Employment (DOE) director Prawit Kiengphon authorized the return of Thai workers to Libya. More than 10,000 Thai refinery and construction workers were evacuated from the North African nation in March 2011 after an uprising broke out which resulted in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. As thousands of Thais are mobilized for employment in Libya, it is time to consider whether the state’s labor export program sufficiently represents the interests of Thai transnational migrant workers. Is it truly safe for Thais to be deployed to Libya? And should the state be doing more to protect the financial interests of its migrant citizens?

Profits come with mortal risks

The Thai state has been promoting the overseas employment of Thais, most of whom are drawn from the country’s poorest and least developed Northeastern region, for more than three and a half decades.  It competes with more than a dozen Southeast and South Asian states for lucrative employment positions in overseas labor markets.

In January 2012, Sri Lanka permitted its migrant citizens to return to Libya.  In response, Mr. Prawit asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to hastily verify that conditions in Libya are safe before Thai jobs were lost to Sri Lankan workers. In his February announcement, Mr. Prawit made no reference to Sri Lanka. Instead, he simply stated that the Thai Embassy in Libya had determined that conditions had returned to a state of normalcy.

However, the DOE’s responsibility for verifying the safety of destination countries is potentially comprised by its duty to promote overseas labor migration.  A new Ministry of Labor policy charges the DOE with increasing the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% in 2012 to a total of 600,000 workers.  This goal would be farther from reach if the Libyan labor market was lost.  Prior to last year’s uprising, Libya ranked as the sixth most common destination of the more than four dozen countries which receive Thai labor.

A recent Amnesty International report which depicted Libya as a troubled nation where “lawlessness” prevails stands in stark contrast to the Thai Embassy’s assessment of normalcy. The report details the continued existence of “hundreds of large militias” that are “largely out of control… their actions threatening to destabilize Libya”.  In addition, it documents how “frequent armed clashes between different militia groups” have resulted in the death and injuries of “uninvolved bystanders”.

It is not only Amnesty’s report that casts doubt on the stability of the situation in Libya.  The DOE’s new regulations which apply to Thai employment agencies supplying Libyan employers indicate that the DOE is concerned that Thai migrants may be affected by future unrest.  Now, employment agencies must ensure that migrants sent to Libya are protected with life insurance policies.  In addition, agencies must submit evacuation plans and written assurances that they will shoulder the costs of any future evacuations.

The new regulations ensure that the Thai government will not have to foot the bill for a costly evacuation as it did following the 2011 uprising. Yet while the regulations mitigate the financial risks that the Thai state incurs in the export of labor to Libya, they do nothing to lessen the financial risks assumed by Thai migrants.  As became apparent when Thai workers returned unexpectedly from Libya last year, these risks for migrants are substantial.

Paying the price for labor export  

Unfortunately, employment agencies generally charge Thai job-seekers under the table service fees in excess of the government stipulated limit.  According to Mr. Daeng Phiwdam, an Udon Thani native who has worked in Libya for most of the past fifteen years, first-time migrants to Libya are charged approximately 90,000 baht in agency fees which they typically pay with money borrowed at high interest rates.  Mr. Daeng estimates that it takes one and a half to two years for most migrants to recover their agency fees with their 10,000 baht per month Libyan salaries.

When migrants are forced to return home prematurely, they often come home saddled with debts that are difficult to recover in the domestic labor market. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, only 40 of nearly 10,000 Thai workers in Libya chose not to return home when the uprising broke out in February 2011. However, Mr. Daeng explained that the prospect of returning without money to pay an agency debt is often more daunting than that of remaining in a war-ravaged country. “If you stay you die, if you go home you also die because you are in debt and there is no way of recovering it,” said Mr. Daeng.

A second problem resulting from last year’s evacuation is that many migrants returned to Thailand with outstanding salary claims.  Given that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Libya to be paid once every three months, the amounts owed to many migrants were not insignificant.  According to DOE statistics, nearly one year after the workers returned, roughly a quarter still have unresolved salary issues with their Libyan employers.

Returned migrants, especially those with outstanding employment agency debt, are likely anxious to resume work in Libya.  Now the DOE has given them the green light to take up residence in the still-troubled African nation.  The DOE has implemented measures to reduce the financial burden that it will incur in the event of future unrest in Libya.  It should also do the same for migrants.  The DOE should implement regulations which require employment agencies to refund most of workers’ agency fees if they are prematurely returned to Thailand through no fault of their own.  In addition, the DOE should more aggressively pursue salary claims on behalf of Thai migrant workers.  It should also consider implementing regulations which require Libyan employers to pay Thai migrants on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis.  Finally, it is high time for the Thai state to reconsider whether its labor export program is truly in the best interests of its citizens. When unemployment is less than one percent domestically, why is the Thai state concerned about losing employment positions in a war-ravaged nation?  The DOE’s efforts would be better directed toward creating more highly remunerative employment positions at home.

OP-ED: Solving Isaan's Education Problem

Guest Contributor: John Draper

In 2011, the 2010 Ordinary National Education Test (O-NET) results by province were made available to the public for only the second time in the history of this standardized nationwide test, and students in Northeast Thailand achieved terrible results.  This article considers the reasons for these poor academic results, focusing on the subjects of Thai, the de facto national language of Thailand, and English, the main foreign language of Thailand (described as such because neither are included in the constitution). Isaan students are being left behind not only because of a lack of resources or because of malnutrition leading to stunted growth, but because they’re learning in the wrong language.

All four data sets mentioned in this article can be found here.

The statistics are quite clear, and for Isaan parents and educators, extremely worrying. For the Thai language, in 2005, the highest placed Isaan province, Udon Thani, was placed 46 out of 76 provinces, and the lowest ranked Isaan province was Kalasin, ranked 73, with only the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwas and Pattani (in that order) below it. The median score was Loei, ranked 62. Just four years later, in 2010, following at least 300 million baht of teacher training directed by the Ministry of Education, with much of it in the Northeast, the highest placed Isaan province was once again Udon Thani. It placed 43 out of 76 provinces – an improvement of just three spots – and the lowest ranked Isaan province was again Kalasin, which saw no improvement at all and ranked 73. The median score was Maha Sarakham, ranked 61. In plain English, what this means is that rural Isaan students graduating from secondary school tend to have difficulties reading the front page of a Thai newspaper.

Turning to English, a principal gateway language and a prerequisite for entering prestige professional career paths such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and engineering, the situation is, in fact, worse. For example, in 2006, the highest placed Isaan province, Udon Thani, was ranked 36th out of 76 provinces, and for 2010, the highest ranked Isaan province, once again Udon Thani, placed 35 out of 76 provinces. In other words, Isaan students exist in an even more extreme two-tier education system as regards English, and again, little has changed in five years.

Thus, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, as a region, excluding the Deep South, which has periodically suffered the closure of anything from dozens to thousands of schools due to intense violence against both schools and teachers, median ranking illustrates Isaan has the worst education system as regards teaching both the de facto national language and English. Secondly, this position has not changed significantly in the last five years despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of baht on teacher training.

Generally speaking, three potential reasons for this phenomenon have appeared in Thailand’s newspapers: 1) Isaan (mainly Lao) people are stupid (though to their credit, most newspapers merely report but do not take this stance); Isaan children suffer from malnutrition, generally acknowledged to be 10% in children under five according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in a 2003 report; and Isaan children suffer from an apparently ‘broken’ education system, perhaps due to a lack of resources or poorly trained teachers.

Addressing the issue of intelligence, a Nation article in July 2011 noted, “By region, students in the Northeast had the lowest average [IQ] scores, with 95.99…Students in Bangkok averaged 104.5.” One danger would be to correlate this low intelligence with poor academic performance and leave it at that. Indeed, this was the mistake of the British Establishment as regards ‘lower races’: the British Establishment in India was out-witted by a relatively small coterie of London-trained Indian lawyers into giving up India at least a generation until they were prepared to do so. In the United States, one self-educated African-American versed in Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thoreau sought and gained equality for all races a little later. To sum up, no group of people has ever been proven intrinsically more stupid than another, and so there is no reason to believe that Isaan children are stupid because of their ethnicity.

Turning to the basic issue of nutrition, malnutrition has been found to result in low IQ as well as child deaths. According to the 2009 UNDP Thailand country report, “The four provinces classified as most vulnerable with ‘significantly negative main food insecurity and nutrition outcomes’ are all in the outer Northeast (Yasothon, Nong Bua Lam Phu, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom). The next most vulnerable category includes the rest of the Northeast… In short, nutritional deficiency is a regional problem.” Another factor is large family size (5.7 vs. 4.0 national Thai average), which is a risk factor for malnutrition. Particularly in Northeastern Thailand, several growth-limiting micronutrients and low intakes of energy have been reported in children. Deficits in these micronutrients have been linked to “reduced linear growth, as well as impaired immune competence, cognition and school performance.” In other words, despite Thailand’s new status as a newly industrialized country, the poorest of the poor are having children who are either cognitively stunted (a technical term) due to their lack of a decent nutritional intake, or who die due to mild to moderate malnutrition and its accompanying baggage of infectious diseases.

A lack of “resources”, as noted by newspapers such as The Nation, whether trained human resources or equipment such as textbooks or computers, has been another principal reason for poor academic results in Isaan, and The Nation ascribes the poor performance on IQ tests to “not enough decent schools, libraries, teachers and education funding, which children in Bangkok have easy access to.” In the English as a Foreign Language setting, a lack of trained human resources and equipment has long been lamented by respected authors such as Joseph A. Foley[i]. One major problem was the lack of a regional university with specialist educational majors until the 1960’s, when Khon Kaen University (KKU) formally came into being (in 1962), evolving from the University of Northeast Thailand. At that time, teachers in Isaan were trained in a general curriculum in teachers’ colleges such as in Maha Sarakham, and they served as form teachers at both primary and secondary levels. However, KKU only began offering a specialist BA in Secondary Education in 1969, and its first Master’s degree only came in 1982.

These dates are only a decade behind the development of the Bangkok universities (with Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Education arriving in 1957), but the high number of elite public universities in Bangkok amplifies this difference. Khon Kaen University currently has an entire student body of approximately 34,000 and as the regional university is responsible, together with three smaller universities and around 19 public polytechnics-turned university, for a catchment area of 19 million people. A similar catchment area of 21 million people for Greater Bangkok and its surrounding provinces is represented by a student body of at least 100,000 when counting just the three elite public institutions of Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University and Mahidol University. In addition, dozens of private universities are also available in the Greater Bangkok area, while recent moves to delist E-sarn University in Khon Kaen due to a diploma-buying scam have thrown a severe light on the quality of education in the Northeast. A further illustration that cuts to the heart of the matter – the quality of education at Khon Kaen University – is that in 2004, I found first year Education majors at the Faculty of Education, i.e., future teachers, unable to decline basic irregular English verbs.[ii]

Having dealt (admittedly quite summarily) with the issue of resource availability in the education system, we turn to the aptly named elephant in the room – the students’ first language. Some 50% of ethnic minority Thai students are having to learn Thai as the gateway language for education before they can even get onto English as the gateway language for professional vocations. In national surveys, “Minority children with poor Standard Thai skills had 50% lower learning results than Thai speaking students in all main subjects”, and in this context, almost every one of the 19 million inhabitants of Isaan is from a minority. Furthermore, very little is being done about this state of affairs, despite UNESCO adopting the position since 1953 that the mother tongue must be the first language of education – and in Isaan, this means Lao (15,000,000 speakers), Khmer (1,400,000 speakers), and Phu Thai (470,000 speakers), and these three are just mentions of languages with populations of around 500,000 or above.

This is not to say that nothing is being done about the elephant in question – a project in the Deep South is introducing Pattani Malay (Yawi) in a dozen pilot schools. Isaan, together with Lao, is being taught in around 17 schools in Khon Kaen province, and for some time Chiang Mai University has been sporting multilingual Thai-English-Northern Thai (Kammuang) signs. However, these are tiny, broadly inconsequential efforts, despite Thailand having formally adopted a stance welcoming plurality or pahulak in its 1997 and 2007 constitutions. Regional languages must be given a place in formal education – and that means being taught in parallel with Thai in a way approved by the Ministry of Education. Musings on this issue have been heard coming from the highly respected Royal Institute, which has in theory endorsed a National Language Policy which supports a multilingualism that includes the regional and local languages. Furthermore, former Prime Minister Abhisit himself urged more support for local languages in schools in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals. And for that to happen, Thai must be endorsed as the national language in an amendment to the Thai constitution in order to assuage the quite natural Thai fear of regional separatism. The regional and local languages of Thailand must also be given a place, however, in such an amendment, in a way that sets standards, allocates roles and endorses their position in formal education.

 John Draper has been a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages at Khon Kaen University for nearly ten years. He holds a BA in Modern History from Oxford University and two MAs in Applied Linguistics from the University of Southern Queensland. He conducts research and is published in the areas of language policy and planning, multilingualism and sociolinguistics. He is also a researcher with the Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region, based at Khon Kaen University.

[i]    Foley, J. (2005). English in Thailand. RELC Journal, 36(2), 223-34.

[ii]   Draper, J. (2004, January). Acquisition of English “if” conditionals at Khon Kaen University: A diagnostic test of proficiency of 2003-2004 first year students. Paper presented at the 24th Annual Thai TESOL Conference Prioritising Teacher Development, Khon Kaen, Thailand.

Review of The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War

The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War by Joshua Kurlantzick (Hardcover edition John Wiley, November 2011). ISBN: 978-0-470-08621-6. US$25.95. 272 pages.

In Graham Greene’s prescient anti-war classic The Quiet American, OSS operative Alden Pyle espouses an alternative to communism and colonialism in early 1950s Vietnam. With a little help from the United States, Pyle argues, a stable, democratically elected government should be able to emerge. The title character in Joshua Kurlantzick’s latest book, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, would not disagree.

Though Jim Thompson, who is perhaps best known for his Thai silk, his exquisite teak wood Bangkok mansion, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, is hardly the doe-eyed, violent operative that Pyle is, he’s cut from the same ideological cloth. But where Greene punished Pyle for his naivete, Kurlantzick is undoubtedly enamored with his central character; Thompson is, indeed, Kurlantzick’s ideal man. The Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations has found in Thompson a tragic figure of conviction, principle, and Old World charm. A man who jump-started a flagging traditional industry, who saw what could have happened in Southeast Asia after the Second World War, and whose rise and fall charts the trajectory of America’s squandered international good standing.

And whereas Pyle died long before he could see the end result of his government’s fool-hardy interventions in a region it barely understood, Jim Thompson had the misfortune of living to see his adopted home become consumed and remade by a neo-colonialism he had fought so hard to oppose.

Born in 1906 to a blue-blooded Delaware family of considerable social standing, Jim Thompson’s early years had all the trappings of a wealthy East Coast Republican upbringing. He went from St. Paul’s to Princeton and then, with the help of a family friend, to a swanky New York architectural firm. His time in New York high-society, however, took a toll and after 12 years, he wanted for something more. He began defending Roosevelt’s liberalism to his staunchly isolationist parents and in October of 1940, he joined the Delaware National Guard. After three years as a desk jockey, Thompson was accepted by the fledgling, elite boy’s club of Ivy Leaguers and adventure-seekers that was the Office of Strategic Services, the United States’ wartime intelligence agency.

Following a heroic stint with the OSS in the Mediterranean, Thompson was reassigned to a post in Bangkok just one month after the Japanese surrender. “Jim was an idealist, a romantic, an anti-imperialist and there was no more idealistic time than after the war,” a Bangkok colleague of Thomspon’s remembered, and it was here that Thompson would finally get a chance to put his ideals into action.

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