Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Political Identity among Chinese in Thailand

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Political Identity among Chinese in Thailand

Article excerpt

WHETHER because of the relative ethnic homogeneity of Thailand or, perhaps, of its lack of a colonial past, Thais seem to have a clearer understanding of their identity than do other ethnic groups in Southeast Asia. This interpretation has long been cultivated and maintained in popular culture, religious activities, and politics. The intrusion of an alien group into Thai society was thus not necessarily considered a threat, and the group was increasingly incorporated into the social, political, and economic life of the country. To improve understanding of how this integration occurred in Thailand, it is important to examine the role of the government in shaping a new identity.

The most noticeable plural aspect of society in Thailand is the presence of ethnic Chinese, a circumstance with crucial economic overtones. For the past one hundred fifty years, the Chinese have played a dominant economic role in most Southeast Asian countries. The economic success of Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in the past two decades has been based in large part on the skills of the Chinese, the most talented group of entrepreneurs in each country. To utilize this group effectively and to maximize political stability and economic growth, it is necessary for these countries to generate some degree of common identity with or loyalty to the state among the Chinese.

The creation of a common national identity among a citizenry entails some degree of broad populace participation. In many countries of the world this problem is compounded by political divisions that closely follow lines of social differentiation, often of religious, linguistic, regional, racial, or ethnic character. In Southeast Asia, the presence of reinforcing cleavages along ethnic lines frequently serves to exacerbate the already delicate economic and political relationships within the populace.

The government of Thailand applied many methods to achieve a common identity among various ethnic groups, but all were essentially designed to eliminate or neutralize forces that could effectively countervail the political elite. The most numerous and possibly most influential of them were the ethnic Chinese. Making them more "Thai" not only eliminated a political threat but also allowed the ruling class to continue to utilize the vast entrepreneurial talents and power of the Chinese to further economic growth. This integration is now becoming an increasingly significant political factor, as an expanding middle class that strongly emphasizes broadening of the political system and a democratic, possibly pluralist, form of government becomes vocal and powerful. One ramification of this situation lies in the success of the Thai government in integrating ethnic Chinese into Thai society. If integration has been successful, continued progress toward democratic government should result in overlapping support from various ethnic political interest groups. On the other hand, if governmental policy merely forces the Chinese to mask deep ethnic sentiments, an impetus for a changed system may expand.

The purpose of this article is to analyze relationships among ethnicity, economic activity, and political identity and to detail the factors that are important to successful and continued integration of the Chinese into Thai society. These factors were derived from an inquiry into the attitudes of businesspersons from main trade associations. Because of the rapid economic growth of Thailand during the past twenty years and the significance of exports to the Thai economy, businesspersons engaged in these activities are influential economic and community leaders. Analysis of their attitudes and opinions helped identify features and trends that members of the business community deem important to economic growth and success in achieving a common political identity which supersedes loyalties to any ethnic or political group (Andrain 1975, 62-64).

The officials included in the survey came from several trade associations for specific economic activities and from the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce. …

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