The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia

By David Brown | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Internal colonialism and ethnic rebellion in Thailand

The internal colonial characterization of the state is one variant of the more general argument that it is economic disparities which are the root cause of political tensions. 1 The central proposition is that when the state promotes the economic development of a core region at the expense of the development of its periphery, then the peripheral regional community will develop a reactive ethno-regional consciousness which may be articulated in the form of an ethno-regional autonomy movement, directed against the state.

The problem facing such an argument, as Walker Connor has noted, is that most ethno-regional unrest has occurred in situations where clear inter-regional economic disparities have coincided with clear cultural distinctions between the regional communities, with the result that it is difficult to test whether it is the economic or the cultural cleavage which constitutes the root cause of the ethnic movement, or whether it is the accidental correlation of the two which provides the necessary conditions. 2

Thailand has experienced unrest in each of its peripheral regions—amongst the Muslim Malays in the southern Pattani region, amongst the Northern hill tribes, and amongst the Isan people of the Northeastern region. Whereas both the Pattani Malays and the Northern hill tribes exhibit clear cultural differences from the majority Thai Buddhist community, the Northeastern Isan people do not. Their region is populated by various Thai-Lao groups whose objective cultural attributes do not differ significantly from those of the Central Thais. The communist insurgency in the Northeast, which persisted from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, was explained by several commentators as arising out of the political disaffection of the

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