Lisu tribespeople in northern Thailand
Courtesy United Nations
Figure 10. Distribution of Selected Ethnolinguistic and Regional Groups.
Laboratory technician at Rubber Research Center in
Courtesy United Nations
Although the population was relatively homogeneous in the 1980s--an estimated 85 percent or more spoke a language of the Tai family and shared other cultural features, such as adherence to Theravada Buddhism--regionalism and ethnic differences were socially and politically significant. Moreover, these differences affected the access of specific groups and regions to economic and other resources, which in turn heightened ethnic or regional consciousness.
Perhaps the principal fact of regional and ethnic relations was the social, linguistic, and political dominance of the Central Thai, who were descendants of the subjects of the premodern kingdoms of the Chao Phraya floodplain. The Central Thai were defined as those who considered central Thailand their birthplace or the Central Thai (Standard Thai) dialect their first language. With the advent of increased migration, modern communication, and education, however, it was becoming increasingly difficult to use language to determine place of origin.
The Central Thai constituted but one of the regionally defined categories that made up the majority of Thai--the core Thai. The number of persons belonging to groups other than the core Thai was difficult to specify precisely, whether membership in those groups was defined by language, by other features of culture, or by an individual’s self-identification. Part of the problem was the Thai government’s policy of promoting assimilation but not encouraging the active collection of data on Thai ethnicity. Government statistics on aliens, tribal minorities, and refugees were more readily available, although sometimes disputed by both scholars and the groups in question.
Despite the inadequacy of the data, it was possible to make some rough estimates of the ethnic composition of the minority sector of the Thai population in 1987. Among the largest minority groups, Chinese constituted about 11 percent of the population, Malay about 3 percent, and long-term resident (as opposed to refugee) Khmer less than 1 percent. The remaining minority groups ranged in number from a few hundred to more than 100,000. Of these, the largest group was the Karen, estimated at about 250,000 in the 1980s. Some of the minority groups spoke languages of the Tai family but differed in several ways from the core Thai.