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Main minority and indigenous communities: Thai Isan/Thai Lao 13 million, Chinese descent 9.5 million (est. 14 per cent), Malay Muslim 1.5 million, Khmer 1.4 million, highland indigenous groups 923,257, indigenous sea nomad groups 10,000.
Main religions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, traditional belief systems (animism).
Main languages: Central Thai (official), Thai Isan/Thai Lao, Northern Thai (kham mueng), Pak Dai, Yawi/Jawi (Malayu), numerous languages with Sino-Tibetan, Mon-Khmer and Hmong-Mien roots.
In census data of 2010, Thai ethnicity accounts for 95 per cent of the population. This figure obscures the ethnic makeup of the country, however, owing to a long history of ethnic Thai nationalism and assimilation. Using figures from the 1997 publication Ethno-linguistic Maps of Thailand and the 2011 government report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the wide variety of ethnicities become apparent. For example, central Tai language is spoken by approximately 34.1 per cent of the population, followed by what has been described as regional variants: Thai Isan/Thai Lao (24.9 per cent); Kham Mueang/ northern Lanna (9.9 percent); Pak Dai (southern Thai) 7.5 per cent. The figure of 95 per cent Thai ethnicity ignores these linguistic differences, which can be mutually incomprehensible, and different cultural beliefs and practices, despite all groups ascribing to Theravada Buddhism. Thai Isan/Lao have particularly endured discrimination and assimilation practices, starting from the period of 1890–1910, when the Lao identity was officially erased in censuses. While the CERD report does report on Thai Lao speakers, they are not officially recognized as an ethnic group or ethnic minority.
Malay Muslims, from the deep South provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts of Songkhla, are the largest official minority group with an estimated 1.5 million people. Lack of political participation and pressures of cultural assimilation has helped fuel a separatist movement.
Many Thais trace their ancestry to Chinese migrants from the late 19th and early 20th century. It is difficult to offer a clear population estimate as Chinese were required to take Thai surnames in order to obtain citizenship starting in the 1920s- 1950s, as well as significant intermarriage with the existing Thai population. Thai-Chinese currently do not form a clearly disadvantaged minority group.
Smaller mountain-dwelling ethnic groups include the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Mein. These indigenous peoples struggle to survive economically and culturally in the face of development projects, land ownership issues, and the influx of ethnic Thais, which contributes to the erosion of the realization of their rights to their traditional lands and livelihoods.
Updated August 2017.
Watch two MRG documentaries about religious communities in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand:
Thailand has experienced a tumultuous series of events since 2014, when following months of political unrest a coup led to the establishment of military rule under General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The regime, otherwise known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), subsequently used the country’s continued instability to justify increased restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, further entrenching their rule. Parliamentary elections were finally held in March 2019, almost five years after the coup took place, amid widespread allegations of electoral irregularities. Though his party, Palang Pracharat, did not win the most parliamentary seats, Prayut was subsequently selected as Prime Minister with the support of the Senate – an outcome denounced by many as rigged, as many Senate members have themselves been appointed by the junta. With around a third of senators having a police or military background, the Senate is expected to bolster Prayut’s dominance during his term.
While these developments have implications for the rights of all Thai citizens, minorities are particularly affected, particularly since the formal endorsement of Thailand’s NCPO-drafted new Constitution in 2017 following a referendum the previous year. Though the proposed Constitution was approved by the majority of those who voted across Thailand, it was rejected by a majority of voters in the three Malay Muslim majority provinces of the deep south, Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces, as well as in the Isaan region of northeast Thailand, where most people are Lao-Isan speaking. Among other provisions, the new Constitution makes it difficult for any single political party to dominate the lower house, placing key power in the hands of 250 military-selected senators. This will likely make it even harder to resolve problems facing minority areas in the Isaan and deep south, where widespread rights violation and militarization continue alongside the violent separatist insurgency in the region.
The new Constitution is also problematic for its provisions on religion. In past Constitutions, Buddhism has been specifically sponsored by the state, but Article 67 of the new Constitution goes further to call for the state to ‘prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form and encourage the participation of all Buddhists in the application of such measures and mechanisms’. This provision is worrisome as it threatens religious freedom and could lead to the policing of religious practice. Article 31 is equally disconcerting: it states that a person may practise their religion ‘provided that it shall not be prejudicial to the duties of Thai people, be harmful to the security of the State, or be contrary to the public order or good morals of people,’ a vague provision that could target minority faiths.
The 2017 Constitution also makes no mention of the peace process nor resolves any underlying issues of autonomy or political solutions that could address the conflict in the deep south, where successive governments have attempted to quash a struggle for self-determination that has killed more than 6,000 people, of whom an estimated 90 per cent are ethnic Thai or Malay civilians. Unofficial peace talks between the Thai government and MARA Patani, an umbrella organization comprised of six Malay Muslim separatist groups including some members of the main group, BRN, have repeatedly stalled but remain ongoing. In The two parties have met multiple times in Malaysia but have yet to move past the confidence-building stages, despite government negotiators moving close to officially accepting the pre-talk Terms of Reference, with talks suspended in February 2019 by MARA Patani until after the March 2019 election after the head of the Thai peace panel was accused of not engaging meaningfully in process.
Issues stalling the negotiations included the establishment of safety or ceasefire zones and the official recognition of MARA Patani as a negotiating group. In the meantime, violence targeting civilians has continued, including the detonation of two bombs in January 2019 by insurgents outside a school and a hospital – indiscriminate attacks that left a police medic and a 12-year-old student severely injured. An attack by gunmen later that month on a Buddhist template led to the deaths of two monks. Other attacks by BRN militants include a motorcycle bomb in a market in Patani in May 2019 that killed two civilians and injured 18 others.
Thai authorities have further inflamed the situation with a heavy-handed military response characterized by disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings of suspected BRN members. These tactics have served to alienate the local population and contribute to the ongoing cycle of violence in the region. At the same time, the Thai government has continued its harassment and repression of civil society in the deep south, particularly groups who expose allegations of wrongdoing by the Thai military in the region. In May 2016, for instance, staff and advisors from Duay Jai and the Cross Cultural Foundation had a complaint filed against them for criminal defamation by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, one of the military agencies overseeing the south, after publishing a report detailing instances of torture and ill treatment of Malay Muslims by the military. The charges were finally dropped in March 2017.
Land rights for Thailand’s indigenous communities remain an ongoing struggle, particularly for the Karen, whose traditional territories are under threat. Though they have resided in what is now Thailand’s Kaengkrachan forest complex national park area for generations, in recent years they have been subjected to violence and discrimination, including the burning of 90 houses and barns by officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in 2011. In September 2016, the Thai Central Administrative Court ruled that no wrongdoing had been committed as the court ruled that the Karen were in fact forest encroachers and the officials were acting in line with the National Park Act of 1961 – a decision that disregarded a 2010 cabinet resolution that gave the community residency rights. Despite this, the court ordered the department to give 10,000 baht compensation to the six plaintiffs, a fraction of the 100,000 baht requested by the plaintiffs. Following an appeal by the Karen representatives, the Supreme Administrative Court awarded 300,000 Baht in damages in June 2018, but denied them the right to return to the forest.
In a related case, the Department of Special Investigation continues to investigate the disappearance of Karen activist Porlajee ‘Billy’ Rakchongcharoen in2014, announcing that former park director Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn was still under investigation for his role in the disappearance. Billy belonged to the community whose houses were burned down and was gathering documentation to bring the case to court prior to his disappearance. Despite being a key suspect in this case, Chaiwat was appointed in May 2016 as the head of a newly formed parks and wildlife protection unit.
Thousands of Rohingya, forcibly displaced by violence in Burma, continue to travel clandestinely through Thailand, in the process placing many in the hands of a brutal human trafficking network. After dozens of Rohingya bodies were discovered in Songkhla, southern Thailand in 2015, a network of Thailand-based human traffickers were exposed, including high-ranking officials. There are signs that people smuggling has continued, as evidenced by the discovery of more than 60 Rohingya shipwrecked in southern Thailand in June 2019. The ongoing persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, which escalated from August 2017, has driven much of this movement: at the time, Thai authorities were widely criticized by rights groups for implementing a policy of naval pushbacks of Rohingya fleeing the violence. Rights groups have called on the government not to resume these policies in future if another wave of persecution in Myanmar causes more Rohingya to seek sanctuary in Thailand.
Updated June 2019
The Kingdom of Thailand is centrally located in South-East Asia, in between Laos and Cambodia to the east, Burma (Myanmar) to the west, Burma and Laos to the north, and Malaysia and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. Its climate is generally tropical. While much of the north of the country is mountainous, the centre is predominantly flat river valley.
The prevailing theory is that the ancestors of modern Thais came from southern China to the Chao Phraya river valley after the tenth century to establish a kingdom at Sukhothai. Ethnic Thais are relatively late arrivals in the region of what is now the ‘Land of the Thais’, having been preceded by numerous and still remaining minorities such as the Malay, Khmer, Mon, and various highland indigenous peoples.
Displacing or absorbing already existing Mon, Khmer and Malay kingdoms in the region, the kingdoms of Sukhothai and, later, Ayutthaya gradually engaged in intermittent military struggles with neighbouring states and each other. Following the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in the eighteenth century, a unified Thai state was established in Bangkok in 1782.
Thais take great pride in the fact that they are the only South-East Asian state never to have been under colonial rule. Nonetheless, Britain and France exerted considerable political and economic pressure on the Thai government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1932, a bloodless coup brought an end to the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy. Since then the country has been run by numerous governments, many of which were dominated by the military.
In 1991, another bloodless military coup toppled an elected civilian government, abolishing the constitution and national assembly. A year later, in May 1992, the middle-class combined with students to protest against continued military rule. The military fired on the protesters, creating the potential for a civil war. The King stepped in and forced the departure of the military junta. Although the King has little direct power, he is deeply revered in Thai society as the symbol of national identity and unity. The middle class revolt of 1992 led to two democratically elected governments. In the ensuing years, Thailand appeared to be steadily moving toward strengthening its democratic institutions, adopting in 1997 its first Constitution, which contained numerous human rights provisions and was drafted by a popularly elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly. Open general elections based on this new constitution were held in 2001 and 2005, electing the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. He was deposed in September 2006 by a military coup, accused of corruption, abuse of power and other charges. The military regime declared martial law, suspended the Constitution and dissolved Parliament and the Constitutional Court.
A regime-sponsored Constitution was approved through a referendum in August 2007. Elections followed shortly after in December, and the People’s Power Party was elected, seen as a reincarnation of Thaksin’s previous Thai Rak Thai party. Since then, Thai politics has been polarized between two opposing forces: the Thaksin/red shirts, popularly supported by those in the north and northeast largely rural communities, and the middle class, largely urban yellow shirts backed by the military and the ‘old establishment’.
This power struggle ended in May 2014, when the military under General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power from the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin who was leading the Pheu Thai party. Since then, the coup leaders have taken steps to consolidate their hold on power. While a new Constitution was finally approved in August 2016, the current administration has stated that elections are unlikely to take place until 2018. The new constitution ensures that the military will have a continuing influence in politics, with half of the upper house seats reserved for military selected senators. Human rights protection has suffered terribly, with exponential increases in lèse majesté cases that have been used to imprison the regime’s critics and resisters. The death of King Bhumibol in October 2016, after 70 years as Thailand’s monarch, has further exacerbated anxiety in the country: while some saw his position as a welcome source of stability and now fear the effect his absence may have on Thailand’s politics in future, others hope that the feudalist power structures he represented and supported can be overturned in favour of democratic principles like equality and freedom of speech.
For years, Thailand had earned its status as one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia. Continuing political unease and mismanagement of fiscal policy, however, has led to slow growth and high household debt. A drop in tourist arrivals recently has also had an impact on this tourism-dependent country.
Thailand’s rapid industrialization has been uneven, with most development concentrated in the region around the capital Bangkok. This has historically left Thailand’s minority regions, such as the deep south, the north and northeast, largely excluded from the benefits of development. What development has occurred – including agricultural initiatives, mines, dams, coal plants – has often been without the participation of minorities or the free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.
The establishment of the National Human Rights Commission in 2001 started to build up Thailand’s reputation and effectiveness in the area of human rights. The Commission, despite rather modest staffing and resources, prepared annual assessments of the human rights situation for the National Assembly, proposed policies and recommendations for improving the country’s legislation, and investigated human rights abuses. With a specific division devoted to ethnic minorities, it has investigated complaints of discrimination and targeted violence, such as allegations of beatings and abductions of the Malay minority by Thai security forces. Unfortunately the work of its office was continually politicized, including controversial appointments of commissioners, bringing its effectiveness into question. At the same time, freedoms enjoyed by the press and civil society have been in retreat.
The Thai government has been unable to effectively address calls for autonomy arrangements and minority rights provisions for the deep south Malay Muslim population, including relatively straight forward issues of use of Malay language and mother-tongue language education. Opportunities to engage in a meaningful peace process have until recently been overlooked, with Thai authorities instead opting for a heavy-handed military response to the region’s grievances – a situation that has resulted in widespread human rights abuses and increasing tensions.
Since the military seized power from the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, Thailand has been under the rule of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the head of the country’s armed forces. Amid crackdowns on independent media and the widespread repression of NGOs, the regime has attempted to validate its authority by appealing to a nationalist sense of ‘Thainess’ heavily associated with the central Thai ethnic identity and the royal lineage – a narrow interpretation that effectively excludes many minority communities, such as Thai-Lao Isan in the north-east and the Malay/ Melayu-Muslim of the south, as well as dozens of indigenous peoples.
The regime’s control over Thailand’s civil and political life continues to intensify, reinforced by a new draft constitution developed by the administration that provides the military regime with considerable control over the Thai parliament. Against this authoritarian backdrop, there have also been increasingly vocal calls from certain groups to make Buddhism the state religion in the next Constitution. While the connection between Buddhism and the Thai state has always been strong, with previous Constitutions stipulating the state’s duty to support Buddhism, until now it has never been formally designated the country’s official religion.
Updated August 2017.
Akha Heritage Foundation (USA)
Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact Foundation (Thailand)
Asian Centre for Human Rights (New Delhi)
Asian Commission on Housing Rights
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong)
Bahn Ruam Jai Project
Centre for the Coordination of Non-Governmental Tribal Development
Hill Area and Community Development Foundation
Hmong Association for Development in Thailand (MDT)
Hmong International Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM)
IMPECT (Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association)
Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples
International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests
Mon Alliance Association
Mon Information Service
Mon Unity League
Pattani Malay Human Rights Organisation
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
South East Asian Mountain Peoples’ for Culture and Development
Updated August 2017.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in