Thailand Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation to have never been formally colonized by a European Empire. In this lesson, we'll see how this has impacted Thailand's history and consider what ethnicity means to the nation today.


Okay, this week's homework assignment: go eat some Thai food. If you've tried Thai food before, you already know why. If you haven't, now you have an excuse to. You're welcome. While you're at it, take some time to get to know the Thai people too. Thailand, a nation of Southeast Asia, is home to almost 68 million people. It's a pretty busy place, and definitely something worth checking out. But who are the Thai? As in many countries, this question is not as simple as it seems. Let's check it out, but first make sure to grab a plate of some Tom Kha Kai, some Khao Pad, some Gaeng Keow Wan Kai, or some Pad Thai, and save me some.


Thai Ethnicity

Nationally, all citizens of Thailand are called Thai. This is also the name of the largest ethnic group in Thailand. That's no accident. Like many other nations, the government of Thailand has put a lot of effort to creating a sense of national unity, based around the idea of shared ethnic heritage. Basically, the government wants everyone to think of themselves as ethnically Thai. There are reasons for this. Southeast Asia had a rough history in the 20th century, as various wars were fought by outside influences for control. Thailand is actually the only nation of Southeast Asia to never have been formally colonized by a European empire, but some of those influences did impact the nation. Today, Thailand is also struggling greatly with issues like AIDS, so promoting national unity is an important priority for the government. The emphasis on a single Thai ethnicity also has historical precedent, since most of the region existed as the unified Thai kingdom of Siam since the 14th century.

Knowing all of this, it's probably unsurprising to hear that about 96% of people in Thailand identify as ethnically Thai. Of course, this isn't quite as simple as it seems. The Thai ethnicity is, in reality, a combination of a variety of closely-related ethnic groups that live within the region. The most numerous are the Central Thai, who historically lived around what is now Bangkok. The Central Thai not only have a numerical majority, but also political dominance in the nation. When the government says they want people to be Thai, this is the specific group of Thai they have in mind.

Central Thai traditions are often upheld as national traditions

However, there are others, mostly grouped by geography. The Northern Thai groups have a distinct dialect and history, being descendants of the Lanna kingdom. The Southern Thai live mainly in the lower peninsula, also speak a distinct dialect of the Thai language, and many have formed close relationships with the large number of Malay people in that region. Finally are the Isaan, a group of Thai who are descendants of Lao people in Northwest Thailand. For a while, this group was simply called Lao, but today that name has taken on a somewhat pejorative insinuation. There are a large number of Isaan people, but they tend to be more impoverished and less politically represented than the Central Thai majority.

The Northern and Southern Thai are often less politically represented than the Central Thai

Ethnic Minorities in Thailand

The last 4% of Thailand's population is composed of various ethnic minority groups, mostly from Southeast Asia. Officially, the Burmese hold the largest population of ethnic minorities at about 2% of the population. This is largely a result of wars in Burma (today called Myanmar), and most of this community is composed of political refugees. Life as a refugee can be very hard, and Burmese refugees in Thailand are lacking many political rights.

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