A few years back I met a small Thai family on Koh Samet. When I asked “Where are you from?” they said they were “Lao”. Wow, man… I never met anybody from Laos before. But as we talked more they said they were actually Thai citizens from around Udon Thani which is in northern Thailand.
I was quite amazed by this encounter. I could hardly believe that Thai people would self-identify themselves as Lao. This was new to me. I wrote it off at the time as some Lao family immigrating to Thailand years ago and then stuck with their Lao identity in the same way that Italian-Americans would keep their Italian identity.
But I was wrong. The Lao Rabbit Hole in Thailand goes much deeper. The Lao identity, experience and language are actually an integral part of the cultural fabric of the provinces that stretch from Khorat up to Nhong Khai on the border of modern Laos.
History of Thailand and Isaan
Thailand is best understood as an imperial, conquering, mini-USA in the heart of southeast asia.
The original Thais were vassal subjects of the Khmer or Cambodian Empire of Angkor. As Angkor declined, the Thais claimed their independence. Later, the Thais fought and subjugated the Kingdom of Lanna which now makes up northern Thailand around Chiang Mai. In the 1600s the Thais conquered the Islamic provinces in the south along the Malay border and also captured Andaman sea ports from Burma.
In 1778, the Thai armies (under King Taksin) marched on Vientiane, the Lao capital. The Thai army looted the city and stole its most sacred treasure, the Emerald Buddha. This little green stature was taken to Bangkok, where it remains to this day – in the heart of the Thai King’s palace. (Specifically in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha where the Thai King goes to pray. Can anyone besides me see the symbolism here?).
The mighty Lao, who didn’t take things sitting down in those days, rose up and recaptured their lost territory all the way down to Khorat, only to be pushed back to Vientiane by the Thais. In 1827 Vientiane was burned to the ground by the Thai army. The Lao territory which makes up modern day Isaan was annexed/occupied by the Thai state and Thai dominance of Isaan was insured for generations to come.
Since that time, the proscribed primary function for the people of Isaan – within the context of Thai capitalism – is to provide cheap labor for the Thai economy. Isaan is and has been crucial to the economic success of Thailand in the same way that slaves – who represented tightly controlled human power and energy – helped to insure the economic dominance of Rome and Sparta in ancient Europe, and The United States of America in more recent times.
Despite growth and development, Isaan is still a poor, backwater second-class/low-class farming area of Thailand. The people from there are like Thai Rodney Dangerfields – they just can’t get any respect.
The cultural separation from Central Thailand, combined with the region’s poverty and the typically dark skin of its people, has encouraged a considerable amount of discrimination against the people of Isaan … Even though many Isaan people now work in the cities rather than in the fields, many hold lower-status jobs such as construction workers, stall vendors and tuk-tuk taxi drivers, and discriminatory attitudes have been known to persist with many Thai-Chinese inhabitants.
These poor people are the natural constituency of the hated red shirt movement. Many of the red shirts are are dis-enfranchised and poor people from Isaan.
Furthermore we can see the traditional Thai contempt for Isaan in the way the red shirts were basically mowed down with live gunfire in the months of April and May 2010:
Spring protests worldwide 2010
Canada G20 – casualties 0 – 900 people were arrested
Greece – deaths 3 – arrests 37
Thailand – deaths over 150 + injured over 2000
This is just one example of how people from Isaan do not even reach the level of human consideration in the minds of many in Thailand (I know this is a twisted claim but my personal citations are available anytime if you want them).
My opinion is that the self-identified “Lao” people of Isaan have had it up to their eyeballs with being second-class vassals of the Thais. The red shirt movement should at least be understood in the context of the long occupied and exploited people of Isaan who are wishing for greater autonomy and opportunity in modern Thailand – and thus far not getting it.
If the powers that be in Thailand can’t handle Isaan, I suspect that in the end Isaan will handle Thailand very well, thank you.