Racism in Thailand

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Racism in Thailand is a prevalent but little discussed topic.[citation needed]

Racism towards Thailand's ethnic minorities[edit]

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."[1]

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.[2]

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.[3][4]

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.

Prejudice towards dark skinned people[edit]

The notion that light skin is good and black skin is bad is embedded in Thai culture, and that doesn't seem to be changing.
—Yukti Mukdawijitra, Thammasat University anthropology professor

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.[5][6] Thai culture shares this type of skin-toned bias as the rest of Asia. (There are no laws within the Kingdom of Thailand which outlaws racial discrimination inclusive of racist cliches known in the Western world. Unlike its neighboring nations which have been under colonialism, Thailand's heritage as an uncolonized state also shaped its existing laws unlike its Westernized counterparts after decolonization. This also includes signage promoting racial segregation as done in the United States prior to 1964 and South Africa under Apartheid.) 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."[7]

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.[8] Common brands featuring people of African descent include mops, toilet brushes and tooth paste.[9][10]

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 possibly 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.[11]

Racism towards foreigners[edit]

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),[12] King Naresuan (film series, 2007 onwards), and Siyama (2008).

Thailand has had long standing racial issues with Middle Easterners,[citation needed] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15][16]

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".[17] 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.[18] Singapore was accused of "stealing 'our' (Thailand's) Songkran",[19] with Thai officials threatening lawsuits.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]


  1. ^ "Asia Times: Thai hilltribes battling discrimination". atimes.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  2. ^ "THAILAND: Crime of the State: Enforced disappearance, killings and impunity — Asian Human Rights Commission". humanrights.asia. Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  3. ^ "The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand - Council on Foreign Relations". cfr.org. Retrieved 2014-06-08. 
  4. ^ "Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 32 Origins of Malay Muslim "Separatism" in Southern Thailand" (PDF). 22 October 2004. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  5. ^ "Images Spark Racism Debate in Thailand : The New Yorker". newyorker.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  6. ^ "Thailand's Racism Problem - Black Listed - EBONY". ebony.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  7. ^ "Blackface Dunkin' Donuts ad in Thailand brings racism accusation - CSMonitor.com". csmonitor.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  8. ^ "NPR: Racism on the Silver Screen". npr.org. Retrieved 2014-06-08. 
  9. ^ "To prove our maturity we must face up to racism - Nationmultimedia.com". nationmultimedia.com. Retrieved 2014-06-08. 
  10. ^ "Dunkin' Donuts apologises for 'bizarre and racist' Thai advert | World news | theguardian.com". theguardian.com. Retrieved 2014-06-08. 
  11. ^ Napat Chaipraditkul (6 August 2013). "Thailand: beauty and globalized self-identity through cosmetic therapy and skin lightening" (PDF). ETHICS IN SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS. 13: 27–37. doi:10.3354/esep00134. Retrieved 2014-06-08. 
  12. ^ Glen Lewis: Virtual Thailand, published 2006, p. 53-54
  13. ^ "Review of Southern Thai Encyclopedia". asiapacific.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  14. ^ "Xenophobia no solution | Bangkok Post: opinion". bangkokpost.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  15. ^ "Foreigners own one third of Thailand? | Bangkok Post: learning". bangkokpost.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  16. ^ "Office of the Ombudsman Thailand". ombudsman.go.th. Retrieved 2014-06-27. 
  17. ^ "Xenophobia strikes out in Phuket". phuketgazette.net. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  18. ^ "Songkran Water Festival Goes Waterless in Singapore · Global Voices". globalvoices.org. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  19. ^ "Thailand's Fragile Face". chiangmaicitynews.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  20. ^ "Official threatens to sue Singapore over Songkran | Bangkok Post: news". bangkokpost.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  21. ^ "Anti-Chinese feelings in Thailand high as influx of tourists angers locals | South China Morning Post". scmp.com. Retrieved 2014-06-07. 
  22. ^ http://asiancorrespondent.com/118988/suthep-claims-of-cambodians-killing-protester-stirs-up-xenophobic-sentiments/