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The 'Lao Question' becomes the 'Thai Lao Question' as Thai society realizes ethnic identity matters

Thailand has been described as a paradise by its own people, most famously in terms of the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription. It describes a land with fish in the water and rice in the fields. Thailand has also been marketed as such to foreigners: Amazing Thailand, the Land of Smiles.

However, this paradise is desperately short of policies that could heal the cuts in the current multicolour fabric of Thai politics and governance. These cuts are marked by class and ethnic inequalities in the foundations of ‘Thai society’.

Yet, the way forward is a path that has received considerable thought. At its heart is something that has been variously called the ‘Isan Problem’ or the ‘Lao Question’.

The ‘Lao Question’ is the issue of what to do with the Khorat Plateau’s massive population comprising a majority of ‘Thai Lao’ people, a term used by Mahidol University’s Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development since the late 1990’s and now more widespread.

With the Northeast’s poverty, with its lack of infrastructure, with its poor economy, with its weak education system, with its socio-cultural and historical differences, this question has been at the front of the minds of Thai kings and statesmen for over a century. It also covers to a large extent the cousins of the Thai Lao in the north of Thailand.

The Siamese response to the ‘Lao Question’ was something that has been called in modern times ‘Thaification’.

Thaification is the modern term for what began as a process of centralization in the former, diverse Siam. It was initially driven by state policies designed to accumulate people in the border regions, especially the Northeast, who could pay tribute, act as a buffer zone against enemies, and serve as soldiers.

Over the years, it also caused the resettlement of Lao people from over the eastern border, the Mekhong, to within the Khorat Plateau. Some came in response to incentives. Sometimes huge mandatory resettlements took place. Some of these brought the Lao into the Central Plains in places such as Saraburi, and some took them further afield, to the South.

A type of centralization model borrowed from Western colonial models developed the modern Siamese state, tying together a multi-ethnic polity into a single economic and legal system. Borders became more important as lines on maps, in treaties with the French and British colonial powers during 1904-1907. Mapmaking was very competitive in nature in the Northeast, as any Thai knows from the Prasat Phra Wiharn problem.

And, a drive towards homogenization occurred as Siam suddenly realized, in response to Western imperialism, that it needed to state of all those living within Siam - and especially the Lao – were Thais. This later led to a change of name for the country. 

To bind the regions to the center, many new policies began. A system of government based in Khorat and closely bound to the reigning monarch developed. The monthon system, as part of the thesaphiban reforms, created a system of provincial administration. The reforms were pulled together in the 1897 Local Administration Act. Despite the Thai Lao protest movements known as the Phu Mi Bun, this system was in force by 1910.

Provincial schools were created in the Northeast to serve as training grounds for future administrators. At first, the Lao language – the heart of its culture - was left alone. As long as the Thai Lao people learned Thai and used it in official situations, the state was satisfied.

Thaification adopted the West's most crucial infrastructure items. The establishment of the railway, telegraph and post systems extended lines of control into the Northeast and throughout the emerging nation state.

Western military and school uniforms were used to militarize the new bureaucracy and dress codes were used to enforce a common code on the public face of a new kind of Siam. Additionally, medals and titles were used to bring order to the Northeast.

Still, the quality of education in Isan was not good. The Thai Lao people were not speaking Thai amongst themselves. Thai culture was not spreading fast enough to unite the country. Education in the Thai language and in the related Central Thai culture came to be seen as the main means of Thaification.

A state education system, the Compulsory Primary Education School Act of 1921, was rolled out to help with this aspect of Thaification as well as to meet the obvious obligation of a modern state to provide an education to its people. It instituted three, then four years of compulsory schooling funded by community taxation, but teachers in general were not well trained or paid. In order to improve the system, the Ministry of Education took over and instituted a direct state subsidy.

The institution of a compulsory school system was earnest in its desire to bring the Northeast into the ‘modern era’ and increase rice production for the benefit of the rentier class and the state. But instead of teaching both ‘Thainess’ and new knowledge about agricultural equipment and planting cycles, the teachers were hard pressed to teach new agricultural techniques that they themselves had only heard of and not been trained in. As a result, the school system defaulted to teaching the ‘virtuous life’ - citizenship, Thai language and literature, culture, and religion. Through a program of political socialization it bred respect for authority and consent rather than developed land productivity.

The mass media in the form of the radio was meanwhile bringing Standard Thai to the people such as in the World War II dialogues of ‘Mr. Man and Mr. Khong’ on social codes for all Thais. The codes were enforced in ratthaniyom – state edicts. It looked like Thaification was working. The ‘Lao Question’ was being solved.

Somewhere along the way, though, something was going wrong. A single mindset based on a single language and monoculture had become the sole goal of Thaification – the new norm. And in doing so, it went against equality for ethnic minorities – the ‘Other’.

For the first time, charges of repression began to be heard in Thailand. And cracks began to be seen in the system of Thaification.

The creation of a bureaucracy did not bring a particularly efficient service to the ordinary person in the Northeast. Instead, it often brought a monolithic officialdom that continued the political socialization program from where the schools left off.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Agricultural Science founded in 1923 to address the lack of progress in agricultural output had failed by 1930. And after the new constitution of 1932, the program of political socialization accelerated.  The question of how to train the Thai Lao to increase their output was only addressed much later by the founding of the Khon Kaen Institute of Technology, now Khon Kaen University.

The slow decay of the temple-based school system that had come with the new education system saw the loss of manuscripts containing ancient stories for Thai Lao festivals – the Hit Sipsong Khong Sipsi - and the ‘wisdom’ they contained. The death of the scripts these stories were written in followed as printed books in Central Thai arrived in both the state and religious schools. The education system was increasingly separated from the traditional temple system as new school buildings were built, the familiar wood or cement structures becoming widespread following the 1960 National Education Act.

However, the new schools in the Northeast could not match the quality of those in Central Thailand. Children whose mother tongue was not Thai simply could not learn Thai fast enough to compete on a national level. As a result, not many of the Thai Lao could rise through the system. Mainly Central Thai as well as assimilated Thai-Chinese bureaucrats came to govern the Thai Lao in their provinces, towns and schools, although this has always been truer in the urban power centers than in the rural areas.

The Cold War saw Thailand governed by one military government after another. As the Vietnam War raged nearby, the ‘Lao Question’ in Thailand was mainly seen in military terms.

Thailand was a ‘domino state’ – one that could fall to the Communist Bloc. The ‘Lao Question’ was reduced to the simple question of destroying a threat to the nation state. Roads became the new railways and television the new radio. Increasingly, secondary schools were established in the Northeast. New lines of control were established that still exist to this day.

Despite the rhetoric of sacrificing for the country, the military governments were governments based on the bullet. Repression became widespread. In spite of this, in a clever strategy of “Politics Leading Military” of 1980 that could show military-led governments as reasonable, amnesties were offered to the communist rebels who had established their bases in the Northeast.

The surrender of the communist rebels in the early 1980s seemed to mean the ‘Lao Question’ had been solved. Yet, it had not. It had been hidden. Decentralization, including the rights of ethnolinguistic groups, had not altogether disappeared. Near the brink of the twenty-first century, the ‘Lao Question’ was still being asked, but in new forms.

Eventually, in a millenary wave of combined enthusiasm and desperation born out of the bloodshed of the events of the 1992 Black May, a concept of unity in diversity – of pahulak and ekkalak - emerged in Thailand. To a certain extent, this bore fruit in the progressive 1997 Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, the 1999 Decentralization Act, the 1999 Education Act (revised in 2002), and the National Economic and Social Development Plans of the time.

It also saw a minor evolution in the national curriculum. By the early 2000s, the Office of Basic Education Commission’s Basic Education Core Curriculum could imagine Thai children from the Northeast being allowed to learn something of their own culture and their own language. For the first time in a century, their own ‘local wisdom’ could be learnt. And one possible solution to the ‘Lao Question’ was emerging - an increasingly decentralized education system.

The push for plurality was underwritten by multiple international treaties signed by Thailand. These included the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by Thailand in 1992), the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2002), and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

Certain, limited groups of Thai academic, bureaucrats and policy makers began to realize that Thaification could include — and not exclude — the promotion of languages and cultures that were not of the Central Thai region. A devolved model of culture appeared and was not necessarily seen as working against the concept of a modern Thai nation state.

This plurality was included in Thai policy statements of the new century, such as Towards a Learning Society in Thailand, which was issued by the Ministry of Education in 2006. One key statement in this document clearly points to a dual national/local identity and language setup: “The enhancement and transformation of language teaching for the global knowledge economy is matched by the importance of Thai language development and recognition of the diversity of ethnic languages across Thailand.”

This recognition of diversity led to the drafting of a notable draft policy. A next step to the solution of the ‘Lao Question’. This was the draft Thai National Language Policy. It was formulated over the last six years by the Royal Institute with the support of the Mahidol University-based Research Institute for the Languages and Culture of Asia. It was launched on the international stage by former Prime Minister Abhisit at the 2010 International Conference on Language, Education, and the Millennium Development Goals.

As a draft policy, it survived both the crackdown of May 2010 and the change of government to Pheu Thai in July 2011. As such, it was brought into Prime Minister Yingluck’s set of government policies.

The document takes the logic of socio-cultural diversity and decentralization to their natural conclusion. It would answer multiple aspects of the ‘Lao Question’ while protecting the majority Thai identity by making Thai the official national language. At present, Thailand is the only ASEAN country that does not designate a national language in its constitution.

According to the policy document, regional and ‘local’ languages would be incorporated into the local fabric of education, identity, and society. Language would thus be put at the forefront of regional and local decentralization of government and administration.

Local community radio stations already use local languages. Implementing the National Language Policy would mean universities in the Northeast would have to ensure a supply of teachers who could teach Thai Lao in schools. It would mean that doctors, pharmacists and nurses would have to learn to communicate with patients in their own languages. It would mean that local government could conduct business in the local language or the national language.

Higher test scores would follow due to the well-documented principle that students can do better when properly schooled and tested in their own mother tongue. International research has shown better academic progress and lower dropout rates when students have ‘ownership’ of the education system. In short, it means more equality of opportunity. And, higher test scores is an urgent requirement in Thailand right now as recent international testing shows Thailand now comes far behind Vietnam. Vietnam’s education system was destroyed in the Vietnam War. But, it ranked 17th out of 65 countries in the 2012 PISA mathematics test compared to Thailand’s 50th out of 65.

So, the National Language Policy offers the opportunity for Thai Lao children to both perform better and to become multilingual in a dual language system that focuses on the mother tongue and Thai in the primary years and then branches out to include one or more foreign languages. Local identity – core to the concept of plurality – is respected. But national identity is also promoted.

Language and scripts are symbolic in nature. A sign bearing Thai Lao immediately begs the question of “Who can read that sign and what does it mean to both those who can read it and those who cannot?”

Photo courtesy The Isaan Record

In January 2014, Khon Kaen University, currently celebrating ‘Fifty Years of Social Devotion’, changed the two gate signs at the main, Maliwan Road entrance to include Thai Lao. The signs now read ‘Khon Kaen University’ in Thai, English and Thai Lao.

The Thai Lao is written using Tai Noi, one of many historical alphabets of the Middle Mekhong Basin. It is a script born out of the melting pot that was the Sukothai period reign of King Lithai. It is a precursor script for both modern Lao and modern Thai. And, it represents the literature – and lost Thai Lao literacy and fading cultural traditions – of the millions of Thai Lao who inhabit Northeast Thailand.

Every year, upon graduation, thousands of Khon Kaen University students have their pictures taken by those main gate signs. What does the Thai Lao language on those signs mean to the students and parents who see those signs? Perhaps little for now, as many of these students and parents simply do not know that the Thai Lao have a rich literature. But many will be asking the question why Khon Kaen University has taken such a step.

At the heart of that simple question is a policy, a policy at present ignored in the chaos of partisanship and machine politics. The Thai National Language Policy was due to be passed in 2014 but no longer looks viable given the current political chaos and the hatreds that have arisen.

The National Language Policy could have been the crest of a wave of decentralization bringing equality and plurality to Thailand. It could have healed a post-modern Thai nation state’s ‘blood and body’ by actively accepting and promoting different identities rather than by actively or passively subsuming them.

In other words, it could have offered a long-term stability that would have gone some way in addressing the ‘Lao Question’.

Again, Thailand is facing desperate times. Again, many Thais are coming to terms with the real possibility of large scale bloodshed. Many are saying it is unavoidable. Shockingly, some are even saying it is necessary. And almost all recognize now that there are differences, quite basic differences, between the North and Northeast of Thailand and the Center and South. Whether they know its name or not, Thais are thinking about the ‘Lao Question’ – except now it has become the 'Thai Lao Question'.

Thailand, the so-called 'Land of Smiles', is – and has been for years - facing the problem of an endless cycle of political crises, one upon the other - a ‘Paradise Lost’.

But maybe we are again seeing the spirit that forged a common consensus in society that bore the 1997 constitution. Out of blood, hope and despair, can a movement emerge that is strong enough to make unity in diversity work? Regional and local languages are at the heart of a plurality of Thai identity. If they were allowed to flourish and bring with them a full and fair form of regional and local devolution, can the dream of a paradise that has been lost be regained?


About Author: 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. His MA thesis was titled "A Sociolinguistic Study of a Lao (Isan) Community". He has published articles in peer-reviewed international journals in the fields of TESOL, multilingualism and multiculturalism, language planning, and ethnic identity. His most recent publication is (in press) "Culture and Language Promotion in Thailand: Implications for the Thai Lao Minority of Introducing Multilingual Signage", Asian Ethnicity. 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 (ICMRP; see and


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