In the past, the government took the position that all Tai people should be accorded all the rights, privileges, and opportunities that went with being a citizen. In the 1980s, members of non-Tai minority groups were being afforded similar rights, and efforts were being made to incorporate them into the Ekkalak Thai. The higher a person’s aspirations, however, the more thoroughly he or she needed to assimilate into Central Thai culture. Thus, most of the representatives of the government were either from Central Thailand or had absorbed the perspective of that region.
By law the Central Thai dialect was taught in all government schools, and all who aspired to government positions, from village headman on up, were expected to master Central Thai. Nonetheless, because local dialects remained the medium of communication in schools, markets, and provincial government offices, differences between the Central Thai and other dialects survived. The Central Thai tended to see other Thai as both different and inferior. In turn, the latter saw the Central Thai as exploiters. Inevitably, many non-Central Thai sometimes felt inferior to the Central Thai, who represented progress, prestige, wealth, and national power.
In the past, the government had often ignored the needs of the outlying regions. Neglect, corrupt administration, and heavy taxation perhaps affected the Thai-Lao more than others. Until King Mongkut established central control through administrators in the nineteenth century, the Thai-Lao region was governed by local Lao princes who were really vassals of the Thai monarch. Corvee (forced) labor and oppressive taxation supported a rapidly expanding Thai court, bureaucracy, and military. Peasant revolts erupted and were suppressed. Real social and economic changes did not began until the reign of King Bhumibol, who in the early 1960s was assisted in these efforts by Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, a northeasterner. In the 1960s, programs of community and agricultural development were coupled with counterinsurgency measures; these efforts continued into the 1980s with mixed results (see Insurgency , ch. 5).
The problems had accumulated over time, and solutions were difficult. Whether the tensions and the potential for conflict between the central government and the Thai-Lao could be understood solely or even largely in ethnic terms was questionable. Besides ethnicity and regionalism, a number of other factors required consideration, including the inadequacy of most economic reform measures and the insensitivity or repressiveness of administrators. The Central Thai lack of understanding of social forms and practices different from their own contributed to the mishandling of local situations and the imposition of so-called reforms without full consideration of the effects of these changes on the local people. The Thai-Lao had a close cultural and linguistic relationship with the people of Laos that was further strengthened by trade and kinship. Laos was viewed by many northeasterners as their home country.
In the South the language, religion, and culture of the Malay or Thai Muslims were markedly different from those of other Thai. Although Islamic religious and cultural practices accentuated the differences, more divisive and destabilizing were economic and political factors. In the past, Central Thai administrators from the national government assigned to the South often spent their time amassing personal fortunes rather than attending to the welfare of the people of the region. Government provision of health, education, and welfare services was inadequate or nonexistent; schools were established only in the cities, for the benefit of children of Central Thai officials. In the 1980s, King Bhumibol and government leaders, especially those from the South, were deeply involved in rectifying those inequalities, but resentment and suspicion hampered development.
Substantial numbers of Malay were loyalists who saw no point in making impossible demands. They were prepared to work within the system toward amelioration of their economic, educational, and administrative situation. Those Malay were not prepared to become Thai culturally, but they saw government programs, including secular education in Thai- language schools, as a means to social mobility and to an expansion of their administrative and economic roles.
Because of severe restrictions on Chinese immigration that were put into effect in the early 1950s, the great majority of Thailand’s Chinese in the late 1980s had been born in Thailand. Not only did most Chinese speak Thai, many also acquired Thai names (in addition to their Chinese ones) and were Mahayana Buddhists (one of the major schools of Buddhism, active in China, Japan, Korea, and Nepal). Although many Thai resented the significant role the Chinese played in commerce and envied their wealth, the Thai also admired Chinese industriousness and business acumen, a pattern common elsewhere in Southeast Asia.