Racism in Thailand
Racism in Thailand is a prevalent but little discussed topic.
Racism towards Thailand's ethnic minorities
Thailand's ethnic minorities have been subjected to widespread persecution in Thailand for a very long time. Especially the 1 million-over members of Thailand's hill tribes were viewed as illiterate drug peddlers and opium-growers, with Thai mainstream media perpetuating this image. According to Dr Chayan Vaddanaputti of Chiang Mai University, this was not always the case:
"Earlier, they were seen by ordinary people in the lowlands as friends and trading partners in a mutually symbiotic relationship between the hills and the valleys. But growing environmental problems after Thailand's national social and economic development plans took off in the late '60s and early '70s, and an influx of Vietnamese migrants during the Vietnam War changed this relationship forever. Then they became the enemies, the 'other.' The demonization and criminalization of ethnic minorities and the perpetuation of the myth that they are non-Thai has been embedded in Thai textbooks, in Thai history and in the mainstream media."
Extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances, and intimidation of members of Thailand's hilltribes by Thai police and military were especially ruthless under prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's "War on Drugs", which started in 2003, based on the aforementioned stereotyping of the hilltribes.
The Muslim Malay Patani kingdom of southern Thailand was incorporated into the Thai state in 1785 CE. Being called khaek ("foreigner"or "guest"), the Thai Malays were subjected to discriminatory actions and political suppression, especially during the regimes of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and the Thaification policies of the mid 20th century. The South Thailand insurgency of the past 10 years, has repeatedly been met with brutal force by successive Thai governments, especially under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration.
Thai Chinese, who now make up 14% of Thailand's population, also have had to bear xenophobic sentiments. Besides having had their language and writing suppressed during the Thaification period of the mid 20th century, those of Chinese descent have been forced to change their last names to "Thai" sounding names.
Thailand has had long standing racial issues with Middle Easterners, who collectively are also called khaek, meaning "foreigner" or "guest". This remnant from the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom can be used in a neutral manner but it can also be used as a racial slur.
Prejudice towards dark skinned people
As in much of Asia, dark skin is equated with outdoor labor conditions and the lower classes, but, contrary to the view in Western countries, it is not connected to slavery. Open displays of blackface in Thailand are prevalent and tolerated, and considered funny. A Dunkin Donuts blackface ad aired on television in 2013, causing a stir in Western media, which was met for the most part with incomprehension in Thailand. The ad, says Thai cultural commentator Kaewmala, may be controversial, but "it’s not a comment on black people in general, it’s about concepts of beauty and social snobbery in Asia."
As most Thai people traditionally have never encountered people of African descent personally, prejudice toward and stereotypes of people of African descent were absorbed by Thais through movies from the West. Common brands featuring people of African descent include mops, toilet brushes and tooth paste.
Although Thailand has incorporated certain Western ideals concerning beauty, Asian attitudes regarding skin tones have been around for a long time. Prior to contact with the West, Indian culture permeated the early civilizations of Southeast Asia, which included the ideal of fair skin over darker skin. The 20 million Isan population for instance, many of whom are of Laotian and Khmer descent, traditionally had darker skin and studies show that many view themselves as less desirable than those with lighter skin. Skin whitening products have proven increasingly popular in most of Asia, including Thailand and are marketed in such a way as to promote light skin as beautiful and desirable.
Thai attitudes towards Burma have been formed by the Thai ethnocentric media of the 1990s and a nationalistic school system, which teaches that Burma is Thailand's traditional enemy, based on repeated wars between the two from the 16th century CE onward. This negative view was further popularized in novels and films, presenting heroic Thais fighting against villainous Burmese invaders. Examples of recent films that portray this are Bang Rajan (2000), The Legend of Suriyothai (2001), King Naresuan (film series, 2007 onwards), and Siyama (2008).
The strong condemnation of the 2014 Thai coup d'état by countries such as the United States of America and Australia have given rise to an "anti-foreigner sentiment" with those Thais who are in favor of the coup. In March 2012, Ombudsman Prof. Siracha Charoenpanij, a public advocate appointed by the government, blamed foreigners for the difficulties that Thais faced in owning land, incorrectly claiming that a third of the land area of Thailand, some 100 million rai or 160.000 km2 of premium land primarily in established beach resorts, was now owned by non-Thais through proxy, and obtained through corruption and the use of legal loopholes. The National Institute of Development Administration supposedly provided these numbers.
Due to a huge increase of Russian and Eastern European tourists to Phuket, Russians have also been the target of xenophobia, with protests and banners saying "Russians Get Out" in Phuket, and "a taxi blockade over suspected Russian transport drivers; illegal shops and businesses". Other issues include the Singapore Tourism Board organising a Songkran festival in Singapore without the endorsement of either Thai expats in Singapore, or sponsorship from the Thai authorities. Singapore was accused of "stealing 'our' (Thailand's) Songkran", with Thai officials threatening lawsuits.
In 2014, Thai officials started to check for passports of Chinese tourists who wanted to enter the terrain of a university in Chiang Mai due to said tourists using buses reserved for students, attending lectures, and eating at the student cafeteria. Popular anti-Cambodian sentiment (already high due to border clashes over Preah Vihear temple) has been stirred up by Suthep Thaugsuban (a Yellow Shirt leader) for the sake of political gain in 2014.
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