An estimated 85 percent or more of Thailand’s population speak a language of the Tai family and share other cultural features, such as adherence to Theravada Buddhism while about 75 percent are considered member of the Thai ethnic group.

Today, there are four regions of Thailand with distinct cultures: the north, the northeast, the central area, and the south. Although regional and cultural differences exist, there is a strong national identity, and the central Thai language is taught and understood throughout the country. This is enhanced by a well-developed mass media and communications system, a good telephone service, and a reliable transportation system servicing all parts of the country. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]

The only exception to this is the hill tribe people in the mountainous regions that surround northern Thailand. The hill tribe people migrated south from China and have remained relatively separate and distinct. However, as the government cracks down on the growing of poppies (for opium and heroin production) and deforestation, the hill tribe people have been moving into the lowlands of Thailand or, through better roads and transportation, commute regularly into the lowland cities for work. Hill tribe people have maintained their own languages, cultures, and customs in the past several centuries.

In addition, there is also an ethnic division between the Thais and the 10 percent of the population who are of Chinese descent. Mostly excluded from the upper echelons of nobility, Sino-Thai people have gained power and status through commerce. The ethnic Chinese in Thailand have managed to blend well into the urban middle-class communities with particularly great contributions in commerce and, more recently, the sciences, while still maintaining their traditional heritage through customs and Confucian family values. Despite the longstanding tradition of classes, social mobility is common, and the ethnic Chinese stand as examples of “rags-to-riches” possibilities. Racial prejudice exists on a subtle level, but has never resulted in overt segregation or violence, even during the anti-Chinese nationalistic government in 1939.

Ethnic and Regional Relations in Thailand

Although the population of Thailand is relatively homogeneous—regionalism and ethnic differences are issues that are socially and politically significant. Moreover, these differences affect the access of specific groups and regions to economic and other resources, which in turn heightened ethnic or regional consciousness. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the past, the government had often ignored the needs of the outlying regions. Neglect, corrupt administration, and heavy taxation perhaps affected the Thai-Lao more than others. Until King Mongkut established central control through administrators in the nineteenth century, the Thai-Lao region was governed by local Lao princes who were really vassals of the Thai monarch. Corvee (forced) labor and oppressive taxation supported a rapidly expanding Thai court, bureaucracy, and military. Peasant revolts erupted and were suppressed. Real social and economic changes did not began until the reign of King Bhumibol, who in the early 1960s was assisted in these efforts by Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, a northeasterner. In the 1960s, programs of community and agricultural development were coupled with counterinsurgency measures; these efforts continued into the 1980s with mixed results.

The problems had accumulated over time, and solutions were difficult. Whether the tensions and the potential for conflict between the central government and the Thai-Lao could be understood solely or even largely in ethnic terms was questionable. Besides ethnicity and regionalism, a number of other factors required consideration, including the inadequacy of most economic reform measures and the insensitivity or repressiveness of administrators. The Central Thai lack of understanding of social forms and practices different from their own contributed to the mishandling of local situations and the imposition of so-called reforms without full consideration of the effects of these changes on the local people. The Thai-Lao had a close cultural and linguistic relationship with the people of Laos that was further strengthened by trade and kinship. Laos was viewed by many northeasterners as their home country.

Cultural Assimilation in Thailand

In “The Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns”, Suntaree Komin wrote: “The fact that there are evidences of successful assimilation of ethnic groups in Thailand (i.e., Chinese, Indians, etc.) or acceptance of different religions in Thailand (i.e., Christian, Islam, Hindu, Sikhs, etc.), has led many attempts to investigate the reasons for the successful assimilation. Eisenstadt analyzes migratory movements in relation to the motivation to migrate, the social structure of the actual migratory process, and the absorption of the migrants into the social and cultural framework of the new society. He sets three criteria to determine the degree of full absorption with the new society. They are: (i) Acculturation—the extent to which the immigrant leans the various roles, norms, and customs of the absorbing society; (ii) Personal adjustment—successful adaptation evidence as low rates of suicide, mental illness, crime, family upheaval and so on; and (iii) Institutional dispersion—the extent of the immigrants dispersion into the various institutional spheres of the society, with the assumption that full absorption has occurred when the migrant group populates the society’s institutions and ceases to have a separate identity. [Source: Suntaree Komin, “The Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns”, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Bangkok 1991]

“Gordon (1964) gives special importance to the structural aspects of assimilation—to the degree to which migrants have been able to move beyond the primary groups that are part of their ethnic communities into groups that are contained within the new society. He distinguishes 7 different but inter-related sub-processes of assimilation. They are: (i) Cultural or behavioural assimilation (acculturation), where cultural patterns have changed toward those of the host society; (ii) Structural assimilation, where large-scale entry of migrants into cliques, clubs, and institutions has occurred within the host society, on a primary group level; (iii) Marital assimilation, where extensive inter-marriage has taken place; (iv) Identificational assimilation, where migrants have developed a sense of peoplehood based exclusively on the host society; (v) Attitude receptional assimilation, where social relations involve an absence of prejudice toward members of the migrant goup; (vi) Behavioural receptional assimilation, where no discriminatory behaviour is shown toward members of the migrant group; and (vii) Civic assimilation, where conflict between migrants and the host society is absent over issues concerning values and power.

“Taft who also treated assimilation as a multi-faceted process, in his attempt to identify basic aspects of the assimilation process, lists 5 aspects, with each may be analyzed in terms of their dynamics. They are: (i) Cultural knowledge and skills, in which the migrant leans the language, learns new roles, and acquires knowledge of the history and culture of his host society; (ii) Social interaction, in which the migrant is socially accepted and interpersonal contacts occur; (iii) Membership identity; in which the migrant is granted formal membership in groups within the host society; (iv) Integration into new groups within the host society, in which the migrant assumes some status within the new society and is granted attendant roles, privileges, and rights; and (v) Conformity to group norms, in which the migrant adopts the values, frames of reference, and role perceptions of the host society, performs roles according to its norms, and conforms to its norms in appearance and expressive behaviour.

“According to these criteria, there is no doubt that the minority groups (i.e., Chinese-Thai) in Thailand are successfully assimilated on all counts. Briefly stated, there is fact of structural assimilation or institutional dispersion where migrant descendents have merged in and up in various institutions, social, administrative and political as well as identificational assimilation, where there is hardly any migrant descendent who would want to be identified as anything else other than being Thai. As observed by researchers, they bear Thai names, look and behave like Thai. They acquire shared attitudes, values and beliefs in various aspects. They are, to all intents and purposes Thai.

“Since society has a structured nature, any migrant does not enter a homogeneous mass, but a social field that is organized and stratified in various ways which sets the range of possibilities. However, the extent to which a migrant has become assimilated is very much determined by his success in being accepted into some of these groups, and assuming a role and status in each. Crucial on the process of being accepted has to do with the receptional assimilation on the part of the host society, both in attitude and behaviour, where social relation involve an absence of prejudice toward migrants, and social interaction, in which the migrant is socially accepted and interpersonal contacts occur.

“These are viewed as the potential positive ground and atmosphere for successful assimilation to take place. In view of this basic assimilation process, which has a lot to do with the attitude of the host society and the pattern of social interactions, the present researcher considers that the Thai “social smoothing” interpersonal relationship values have to a great degree accounted for the initial important successful assimilation process, in that: (i) there is an obvious absence of strong prejudice against different religion, different beliefs or different race, because the Thai would rarely show a look-down attitude toward another human being. It is the cognitive world of the Thai interactions to keep one another’s “ego” relatively untouched; and (ii) the value of smooth interpersonal interactions has played down any apparent differences between interactors.

“This “soft” approach characteristics of the Thai—in keeping one another’s ego intact and by providing pleasant and smooth interpersonal interactions—helps to reduce tensions and provides a comfortable ground for adjustment process to occur smoothly and successfully. It makes the migrant feel at ease, and disarms their potential defensive mechanism, who in turn are charmed into the Thai way of interacting, behaving, and thinking, and ultimately assimilated into the Thai identity as evidenced in the case of the Chinese-Thai. Through positive interactions, changes voluntarily occur on the part of the migrants, who gradually discard certain stereotypic manner and behaviour of their migrant parents (for example, the Wok wek woi wai loud and blunt manner of the Chinese) and adopt the contrasting Thai soft-spoken polite manner, and so on. This internal subjective assimilation at the cognitive-affective level provides the sold base for successful assimilation. This subjective-affective assimilation is further facilitated by structural assimilation , whereby a fully assimilated person can work his way up in any social, political or administrative position with no discriminative barrier. One can find, tracing through the backgrounds of all the powerful position holders, a number of different ethnic backgrounds.

The Thai and Other Tai-Speaking Peoples

Speaking of the "Thai" actually means speaking about members of the Tai-Kadai language family, which consists of six subgroups, defined by their geographical settlement: 1) Western Thai (Shan); 2) Southern Thai (Siamese) ; 3) Mekong Thai (Lao, etc); 4) Upland Thai ("Coloured" Thai); 5) Eastern Thai (Nung, etc); 6) Kadai (Li, Kelao, Laqua). This way we can find many members of this language family in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The core Thai--the Central Thai, the Northeastern Thai (Thai-Lao), the Northern Thai, and the Southern Thai--spoke dialects of one of the languages of the Tai language family. The peoples who spoke those languages--generically also referred to as Tai--originated in southern China, but they were dispersed throughout mainland Southeast Asia from Burma to Vietnam. It was conventional in the 1980s to refer to Tai-speaking peoples in Thailand as Thai (same pronunciation) with a regional or other qualifier, e.g., Central Thai. There were, however, groups in Thailand in the late twentieth century who spoke a language of the Tai family but who were not part of the core population. [Source: Library of Congress]

Although the four major Tai-speaking groups taken together clearly constituted the overwhelming majority of Thailand's population, it was not entirely clear what proportion of the core Thai fell into each of the regional categories. Among the reasons for the uncertainty were the movements of many who were not Central Thai in origin into the Bangkok area and its environs and the movement of Central Thai, perhaps in smaller numbers, into other regions as administrators, educators, technicians, bureaucrats, soldiers, and sometimes as settlers. The Central Thai, of generally higher status than the general populace, tended to retain their identities wherever they lived, whereas those from other regions migrating to the central plain might seek to take on Central Thai speech, customs, and identity.

Although politically, socially, and culturally dominant, the Central Thai did not constitute a majority of the population and barely exceeded the Thai-Lao in numbers, according to a mid-1960s estimate. At that time, the Central Thai made up roughly 32 percent of the population, with the Thai-Lao a close second at about 30 percent. The Thai-Lao were essentially the same ethnic group that constituted the dominant population of Laos, although they far outnumbered the population of that country.

In terms of language and culture, both the Northeastern Thai and the Northern Thai were closer to the peoples of Laos than to the Central Thai. Speakers of the Tai language of Kham Mu'ang (known as Yuan in its written form) made up the majority of the population of the 9 northernmost provinces from the Burmese-Lao border down through the province of Uttaradit, an area of about 102,000 square kilometers. Highly independent, the Northern Thai lived mainly in small river valleys where they grew glutinous rice as their staple food. The Chakkri Dynasty continued to maintain a court in Chiang Mai, the largest city of the North, which the Thai people looked to as a major religious and cultural center.

Generally, before the trend toward homogenization of dress, language, and forms of entertainment fostered by modern communication, there were regional differences in costume, folklore, and other aspects of culture among the Thai people. The continuing retention of these differences into the 1980s seemed to be a function of relative remoteness from Bangkok and other urban areas. Of some importance, according to observers, was the tendency to cling to, and even accentuate, these regional differences as symbols of a sense of grievance. The number of persons belonging to groups other than the core Thai was difficult to specify precisely, whether membership in those groups was defined by language, by other features of culture, or by an individual's self-identification. Part of the problem was the Thai government's policy of promoting assimilation but not encouraging the active collection of data on Thai ethnicity. Government statistics on aliens, tribal minorities, and refugees were more readily available, although sometimes disputed by both scholars and the groups in question.

Central Thai

A number of linguistic scholars mark the reign of King Narai (1657-88) as the point when the Central Thai (or Ayutthaya Thai) dialect was established as the standard to which other forms or dialects were compared. Central Thai was the required form used in modern Thailand for official, business, academic, and other daily transactions. From Ayutthayan times, Central Thai borrowed words from Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit. Thailand still maintained a court language called Phasa Ratchasap, although King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) encouraged the use of Central Thai. Similarly, Pali, the religious language, although still used, gradually was being replaced by Central Thai for many ceremonies and writings. Although the Thai Royal Academy was the final arbiter of new words added to the language, post-World War II Thai has been influenced heavily by American English, especially in the area of science and technology. [Source: Library of Congress]

Increasingly, Central Thai was spoken with varied fluency all over the country as the education system reached larger numbers of children. Nevertheless, regional dialects (or their local variants) remained the language of the home and of the local community. Learning Central Thai is not a simple matter. The dialects of the four regional components of the core population are only mutually intelligible with difficulty. There are lexical and syntactic differences as well as differences in pronunciation.

Differences in dialect were sometimes an irritant in relations between those whose native tongue was Central Thai and persons from other regions. On the one hand, if persons migrating from other regions to Bangkok spoke their own dialect, they might be treated with contempt by the Central Thai. If, on the other hand, such persons failed to speak Central Thai with sufficient fluency and a proper accent, that, too, could lead to their being treated disrespectfully.

Dominance of Central Thai Culture in Thailand

At the heart of regional and ethnic relations in Thailand is the social, linguistic, and political dominance of the Central Thai—descendants of the subjects of the premodern kingdoms of the Chao Phraya floodplain. The Central Thai are defined as those who considered central Thailand their birthplace or the Central Thai (Standard Thai) dialect their first language. With the advent of increased migration, modern communication, and education, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to use language to determine place of origin. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the past, the government took the position that all Tai people should be accorded all the rights, privileges, and opportunities that went with being a citizen. In the 1980s, members of non-Tai minority groups were being afforded similar rights, and efforts were being made to incorporate them into the Ekkalak Thai. The higher a person's aspirations, however, the more thoroughly he or she needed to assimilate into Central Thai culture. Thus, most of the representatives of the government were either from Central Thailand or had absorbed the perspective of that region.

In the past, some Thai governments put great pressure on the various Thai peoples to forsake regional customs and dialects for "modern" Central Thai culture. By law the Central Thai dialect was taught in all government schools, and all who aspired to government positions, from village headman on up, were expected to master Central Thai. Nonetheless, because local dialects remained the medium of communication in schools, markets, and provincial government offices, differences between the Central Thai and other dialects survived. The Central Thai tended to see other Thai as both different and inferior. In turn, the latter saw the Central Thai as exploiters. Inevitably, many non-Central Thai sometimes felt inferior to the Central Thai, who represented progress, prestige, wealth, and national power.

In the 1980s, however, there was a rebirth of the study and teaching of local languages, especially Lan Na Thai in the North and also the Southern Thai dialect. Efforts were also made to expose all Thai to the different cultures and traditions of the various regions through regional translation and art programs. At the same time, Central Thai became more readily accepted as a second language. The success of the national identity programs could be explained in part by the Thai literacy rate, one of the highest in Asia.

Large Thai Minority Groups in Thailand

The “Pak Tai” and Southern Thai live in 14 different provinces in southern Thailand. There are about 5 million of them. They have traditionally been wet rice cultivators and cattle breeders. Although most of them are Buddhists, more than one million are Muslims. They speak a variety of Tai dialects often referred to as dambro. See Separate Section for more on them.

The Lao Isan are essentially Lao that live in northeastern Thailand Also known as the Northeastern Thai, Thai Lao, Isan, Issan or Isaan, they are mostly Buddhists who speak a Lao dialect of the Thai language, which is also spoken by lowland Lao in Laos.See Separate Section for more on them. See Below

The Yuan are a Tai-speaking group that dominates the Chiang Mai region of northern Thailand. There are about 6 million of them. There also a few thousand in Laos. Also known as the Lanatai, Lao and Youanne, Youon and Yun, they have traditionally had more in common with the Lao—their northern Pali-language, their Buddhist customs, their script, their polite terms and temple architecture—than the Thais. The Yuan have largely been assimilated into Thai society but still maintain strong connections with the Mekong regions and the Lao. The Yuan differ from the Lao of northeastern Thailand in that they tattoo their abdomens and their dialect is different. It is often sometimes said that Northern women are the most beautiful and people the friendliest and most polite in Thailand.

Small Thai-Speaking Groups in Thailand

Of the more than 85 percent of the country's population that spoke a language of the Tai family, only a small fraction constituted the membership of the half-dozen or so ethnic groups outside the core Thai. These groups lived in the North or Northeast and were often closely related to ethnic groups in neighboring countries. [Source: Library of Congress]

In Thailand, the largest of these Tai-speaking minorities were the Phutai (or Phuthai) of the far Northeast, who numbered about 100,000 in the mid-1960s. There were also many Phutai in neighboring Laos. The Phuan and the Saek, also in the Northeast and with kin in Laos, were similar but much smaller groups. Whereas all other Tai languages spoken in Thailand belonged to the southwestern branch of the family, that spoken by the Saek belonged to the northern branch, suggesting a more recent arrival from China.

The Khorat Thai were not considered Central Thai, despite their close resemblance in language and dress, because they and others tended to identify them as a separate group. The Khorat Thai were said to be descendants of Thai soldiers and Khmer women.

The Shan (a Burmese term) in the North were part of a much larger group, the majority of whom lived in Burma, while others lived in China. Different groups of the Shan called themselves by names in which the term Tai was modified by a word meaning "great" or something similar. The Thai called them Thai Ngio or Thai Yai. Also in the North were a people called the Lue, estimated in the mid-1960s to number less than 50,000. Like the Shan, they resided in greater numbers elsewhere, particularly in southern China.

The Lao Theung—a group that lives mostly in Laos but has some members in Thailand—have traditionally lived in villages with around 100 households. Most are surrounded by rice fields, swamps, ponds, plains and secondary forests. Villages tend to be about five kilometers apart. Houses are usually 1½ meters above the ground s built on piles or stilt. The homes of the poor have bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Those that can afford it get metal roofs and wood walls and floors.

Isan (Tha-Lao)

The Tai-speaking peoples of Northeast Thailand and the Khorat Plateau are known as the Thai-Lao, Isan, Lao Isan or Northeastern Thai. Essentially Laotians of Thai origin, they speak Isan, which is extremely close to the standard language of Laos, located across the Mekong River from Northeast Thailand. The northeastern region is also called Isan in the Thai language and sometimes spelled Isaan.

According to Lonely Planet the 19 northeast provinces that make up Isaan are Thailand’s forgotten backyard. The guidebook states that “this colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily and with a profound respect for both heritage and history.” Padung told the Star that despite Isaan’s unforgiving climate of persistent drought, its people have always remained in the region. “And they have kept their way of life. That is why many people feel that the real Thailand is in Isaan,” he said. The northeast also has its own distinctive celebrations such as the Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival, were villagers construct large skyrockets of bamboo, which they then fire into the sky to bring rain for their rice fields. The region is also know for the ghost masks from the Phi Tha Khon Festival, khoon (cheerful yellow flower of Isaan) and Isaan musical instruments.

Tai Lue

The Tai Lue are an ethnic group associated mostly with the Xishuabgbanna region in the Yunnan Province in China but who have some members that live in Myanmar and Thailand. They are a subgroup of the Dai and are similar to the Thai and Lao. The have traditionally been rice cultivators and lived in tropical and semitropical monsoon forests along river valleys and in pockets of level land in the hill country of northeast Burma, northwest Thailand and southern China. [Source: Gehan Wijeyewardene“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

The Tai Lue are also known as Bai-yi, Dai, Lawam Lu, Luam Lue, Pai-I, Pai-yi, Shui Bai-yi, Shui Dai, Tai. Thais sometimes call them Lua or Lawa. They migrated to the Nan area of northern Thailand from China’s Xishuangbann region in Yunnan Province about 200 years ago. There is no good information on Tai Lue numbers in Myanmar. In Thailand, there are maybe 100,000 of them and they live in communities scattered throughout northern Thailand.

"Dai" is the Pinyin (Chinese language) form of "Tai". According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “It is not easy to make distinctions between the Tai Lue and the Yorng and Khoen of Myanmar. There is now also a sizable Lue population in Taiwan. The term "Tai" is used for all Tai-speaking peoples. In the southwestern part of Yunnan these are mainly the Lue and the people known variously as Tai Nuea (Northern Tai), Chinese Shans, Tai Khorn, and Tai Mao. There is considerable difference between the Tai Lue and Tai Nuea languages and they should be considered mutually unintelligible.

The Tai Lue live mostly in Nan Province near the Laos border. Nearly all are Theravada Buddhists. The Tai Lue language is very similar to the Lao and Thai languages. The written languages resembles Burmese. They have traditionally lived in wooden or bamboo thatched houses supported on thick wooden stilts. Beneath the house they placed their kitchens and weaving looms. Many still make their own cloth, often died with indigo. Their traditions remain strong. Many villages are under the leadership of a headman and astrologer. Tai Lue fabric is regarded as among the best in northern Thailand and their temple architecture—featuring thick walls, small windows, nanga lintels and two- or three-tiered roofs—have had a strong influence on temples in Nan and Phrae Provinces.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Washington Post, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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