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