Multi-Cultural Society in Thailand.

By Ms. Kulwadee Charoensri
[Director of Cultural Promotion Fund Division, Office of the National Culture Commission, Bangkok, Thailand. Mobile: 66+8+16653060. Email:]

Thailand: Land of Cultural Diversity.

Cultural diversity is the heritage of mankind that every nation hopes to preserve, transmit, and modify their culture. Thailand is located in the territory of tropical zone where there are abundant ecological resources, namely, mountainous and lowland areas in the mainland, coastal terrain, and islands. These ecological differences enhance ethnic diversity in all regions of the country. There are, at present, more than sixty language groups being used throughout the country. Ethnic diversity in Thailand can be observed in the differences not only in languages, but also in lifestyles, traditional costumes, religious practices, and Cosmo vision. Therefore, Thais and other people of different ethnic origins are familiar with this cultural diversity. In addition, Buddhism as a mainstream religion in Thailand places its emphasis on kindness and forgiveness. This has created an ideal person of moderation. Thus, Thai people are capable of tolerating differences. People of different ethnic backgrounds as well as lifestyles can live together even at the community level. It would not be too far from the fact to claim that the cultural diversity in Thailand can be regarded as culture of peace.

The Importance of Multicultural Society.

Multicultural society is designed to prepare its members for an acceptance and respect of cultural differences. This leads to the situation when the society at large offers a platform for information exchange among the people in different sectors of the society. Multicultural society also encourages alternative ways of life in the world that keeps changing so rapidly.

In this sense, multicultural society acts as an incubator for creativity as well as initiative that in return, helps develop the society further.

Multiculturalism in the Current Thai Society.

In the past, Thai Kings were open-minded and more flexible to cultural differences. That is why Thailand once had a Japanese noble man, Islamic and Belgium Lords for the very high ranks. A Karen leader was also appointed as a custom officer, supervising Sangkla Buri territory. However, as the result of the creation of nation-state, nationalism has emerged before the outbreak of the Second World War. This led governments of various countries to aim at ‘one culture for one nation’ ideology. Thus, the culture of the dominant group has been claimed as the national culture and at the same time, other cultural identities were forced into extinction. This process is well-known as the assimilationist approach. Nevertheless, with the domination of the mainstream culture, local as well as ethnic culture can still survive.

Thailand had experienced the time when its government was forcing its people through the process of ‘Thai-ization’. People sharing different cultures were discouraged from their own cultural practices following the harsh treatment. Through formal school system and all forms of government propaganda, the nationalist attitude of being Thai has been instilled in the mind of Thai people. The perception of Thailand as a homogeneous society is still active among the people of the present generation. Therefore, it is hoped that the younger and the following generations would realize the historical fact of the whole region including Thailand as the areas endowed with multicultural richness. That is why Thai people are expected to perceive Thailand as one of the heterogeneous societies as it has actually been for time immemorial. To begin with, it requires Thai people to learn how to tolerate the ethnic differences, to learn from each other through the process of cultural contact, to understand the differences, and to show respect to other cultures from their own.

Sustainability of Cultural Diversity in the Thai Life Style.

The outstanding characteristic of Thai culture is its flexibility and absorptive ability. In general, Thai people have adopted the mainstream or national culture, while at the same time, they still maintain the traditional lifestyle following their sub-cultural identity at the local level. For example, the Northeastern people when migrating to other regions in the country in search of occupation, they tend to recreate a community of their own through using the Northeastern dialect, sharing the Northeastern food habit, and enjoying the Northeastern music.

Accommodation of different cultures can be found in various parts of Thailand through integrative process. There are times when one cultural feature has been adopted by another group of people through enculturation and adaptation.

For example, the adoption of local regional food recipes has become cross-regional practices perhaps with some modification. An ethnic highlander who performs the traditional shamanism, while at the same time, he sends the sick member in the family to the hospital. It is expected that the healing power of both traditional and modern techniques would become supplementary to each other.

Another example can be drawn from the ceremony for the death. When the Thai people of Chinese descendants hold the ceremony for the death, many of them have applied the Buddhist procession in a Buddhist temple together with the Chinese procession for the death.

Nourishing the Current Thai Multicultural Society.

Currently, there are two major approaches to promote the Thai multicultural society: one is through legal and policy procedure; and the other is through behavior conduct. From the aspect of legal and policy procedure, it is stated in the national constitution for the recognition of cultural diversity. In fact, the actual law and regulations for the promotion and protection of local and ethnic culture remain to be developed. The constitution also specifies equality among people without discrimination of any kind.

It is hoped that such measures could promote respect to different cultural practices and ideas leading to the people’s awareness of cultural rights. This requires a fairly high degree of democratic atmosphere at all levels.

The governmental policy and legislative adjustment in accordance with the intention of the 1997 constitution of Thailand would eventually improve the political performances towards good governance. Thus, better and wider people’s participation in socio-economic, political, and cultural life would be achieved on a sustainable basis. These can be achieved by the ongoing decentralization of power to the local communities.

Concerning the behavior conduct of both the government and its people, a great number of bureaucrats are not sensitive to different cultural values and practices. Government buildings, for example, are centrally designed without taking into account the architectural features of specific localities. The hill tribal people in the mind of many bureaucrats are destroyers of the forest. In fact, such ethnic myth is contradict to the fact that the homeland of these hill tribal people is largely concentrated in the Northern region where there is about half the forested areas of the whole country. In addition, ethnic inferiority has been used to make joke by a number of comedians. At the national level, misappropriation of indigenous culture can be found very often in entertainment and commercial advertisement.

However, at the local level, the adoption and accommodation of different cultures are commonly practiced. For instance, the wedding ceremony is mostly a mixture of Thai and Chinese cultural practices. A concrete case of Baba wedding ceremony in the Southern region of Thailand can provide an illustration of Thai, Chinese and Malayan cultural features coexist together.

The Future of Multicultural Society in Thailand.

In the world of capitalism at present, culture is not only defined as identity, dignity, unity, and harmony, but also as capital in economic sense.

Culture is now much emphasized along with the increasing importance of cultural industry. Local wisdom is considered to be the value added on products or services in business sector. This implies that the cultural richness is a big resource pool that can generate income to the local communities, the region, and the nation at large.

It is essential and urgent for the cultural bearers to realize and understand the value of their cultural heritage. By the same token, the state has its mandate to provide institutional support for the promotion as well as protection of cultural asset and traditional cultural heritage.

Although there are no concrete government measures or mechanisms to enforce the promotion and protection of multicultural society in Thailand, a number of government agencies are promoting and preserving cultural diversity in different way. They also encourage the respect of cultural diversity among the Thais. The Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the Ministry of Education has initiated the curriculum on folk culture to be used in local schools throughout the country. The purpose of this effort is to ensure the transmission of local wisdom and to emphasize respect to cultural rights of different social groups. The Ministry of Culture also promotes and supports the application of sub-cultural activities continuously, such as ethnic and folk music, parochial language, and research work. These supports are expected to help strengthen and sustain the multicultural society in Thailand.

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Ulticultural Society.

Appendix A: Sections stipulated in the 1997 Thai constitution.

Section 46: The original groups of ethnic people have the rights to preserve as well as revitalize their local and national custom, tradition, local wisdom, arts or culture. In addition, they have the rights to participate in maintaining and utilizing natural resources and environment in the sustainable and harmonious way.

Section 69: Thais are obliged to protect the country, serve under the army, pay tax, help the governmental agency, be educated and trained, protect and transcend national culture and local wisdom as well as preserve natural resources and environment.

Section 73: Government has to protect Buddhism and other religions as well as encourage understandings and unanimity among the followers of every religion. This includes the support of applying the core of religion for building morality and developing quality of life.

Section 80: Government has to protect and develop children as well as youths. This also includes the support of the equality among male and female and building as well as developing solidity among family and community.

Section 81: Government has to provide education and training. Government should support the private sector to organize education and training on both knowledge and morality. Law relating to national education and the adjustment of education in accordance to social and economic changes have to be provided. The right understanding of democracy under the king, research on arts, scientific as well as technological development should be encouraged for the development of country and teaching profession. The support is also emphasized on local wisdom, art and national culture.

Section 289: Local administrative agency has the responsibilities to nourish and preserve the invaluable local art, custom, tradition, local wisdom or culture. The local administrative agency has the rights to provide education and training on profession in response to the local need. . The local administrative agency also has the rights in participation of governmental education and training provision, which is not against the section 43 and 81.