Defending Thailand from invaders
"Nowadays, these illegal immigrants fill our homes, our city - they take our jobs and destroy our resources, our watersheds, our forests. In the future all these people will cause new problems, no less severe than the current illegal drug problems. They will have children and children’s children all over the place. We already have one million six hundred thousand people in our province. With these people added - I don’t know how many - living in our cities, living in our municipalities, in this area, how many? Living in all sorts of other communities - swarming."
These are not the words of some street-corner rabble-rouser. This is the Governor of Chiang Mai, delivering an official statement to the press on 20 July. He is clearly upset. Some Chiang Mai academics spoke overseas about the government’s resistance to conferring nationality and land rights on hill peoples. The Governor accuses these academics of "selling the country" and acting against the interests of the nation: "Our own people went and released statements distorting and twisting the truth. They went to insult their own country, to insult their government personnel and to insult the brothers and sisters, the people of Chiang Mai repetitively and on many issues. But you should see there is something distasteful here. They receive foreign money and bring that money here to mobilise people. This is not proper and not right. On top of this, they draw illegal immigrants into our province."
All this has followed on from the demonstration by hill peoples in Chiang Mai from 25 April to 19 June to ask for Thai nationality and land rights. That demonstration was broken up by 1,600 police and rangers in the middle of the night - presumably on the orders of the same governor. Newin Chidchob as deputy minister of agriculture justified the action on nationalist grounds: "Those who want to make a living on Thai soil must be Thai… The government should take care of Thai citizens first and other groups later." Subsequently, the academics have received death threats. Handbills have accused them of working in cahoots with big-time international drug dealers.
The law of nationality and the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism are not at all the same. The 1913 Nationality Act allowed virtually anyone born and brought up inside Thailand to claim Thai nationality (though the 1992 amendment qualifies this). A very large slice of the population of Bangkok and other cities has Thai nationality under this provision. The hill peoples’ current demand for full Thai nationality is a claim for equivalent rights. Of course the administrative details are a bit more tricky.
Birth registrations are not so common in the hills. But that is not the issue. Newin talks of a strict division between "Thais" and "others". The governor imagines hordes "swarming" down from the hills - to breed uncontrollably, seize land and jobs, destroy forest, peddle drugs. These visions are based on the crudest prejudice not on problems of law and administration.
Ever since the government of King Chulalongkorn began to incorporate the outlying hill areas into the Thai state around a century ago, there have been two conflicting attitudes towards the hill peoples. Chulalongkorn himself was clear that every effort should be made to have the hill peoples become Thai citizens. His thinking was mainly strategic. Over three centuries of Siam-Burma warfare, hill peoples had been the "spy satellites" whose intelligence could deliver victory. Most of Thailand’s western and northern borders are in remote hilly terrain (and still largely unmapped). A friendly population in these hills, the King saw, was the best form of defence. He visited the hill peoples (especially the Karen) several times, and lavished gifts on their leaders to persuade them to be friends.
These strategic concerns remain the same today, even though the invasions now consist of drugs and ideologies rather than Burmese troops. By launching many projects in the hill areas, the King and Queen continue Chulalongkorn’s tradition of ensuring the hill peoples are friendly. Through public association with the hill peoples in countless press and TV images, the royal family has legitimated their membership in the Thai nation. The King himself has emphasised that the hill peoples’ claims to land and civic rights based on long residence should not be overridden by new government laws or administrative regulations.
But there is a second tradition which has also come down from the Chulalongkorn era. To govern these outlying areas, King Chulalongkorn studied how colonial powers handled the same problem. As he noted, "the Europeans are hundreds of times more experienced than we are in this activity". He found that colonial governments ruled the provinces by a system of "Commissioners" - officials appointed to rule provinces as paternalist local despots with very wide-ranging powers. He adapted this colonial model into the system of provincial governors. In most of the world, this model was swept away by anti-colonial nationalism. Ironically, uncolonised Thailand is one of the few places it has remained. This model was "best before 1900" and is way past its prime.
The colonial model was designed for governing a foreign, conquered and "inferior" people. Of course, times have changed. But the traces remain. Provincial governors still fall easily into a personalised paternalism. They like to refer to the province’s population as "my people". They can be strikingly insensitive to local culture. Recently the Ubon governor decided to build a massive concrete candle in an area considered as "sacred space" by the townspeople. To his surprise, this pet project provoked an angry local reaction.
On top of this, the training and internal culture of the Ministry of Interior emphasise security and a narrow form of ethnic nationalism. The Thai government rules the provinces with a nineteenth-century colonial structure clinging to a mid-twentieth century form of nationalism.
The Chiang Mai academics’ support for the hill peoples’ claims is based on the legal definition of Thai nationality. This in turn harks back to King Chulalongkorn’s concern that Thailand’s boundaries should be inclusive. The Chiang Mai governor’s outburst is an exclusive nationalism in an extreme form. It imagines Thailand besieged by disloyal academics, fiendish foreign financiers, and waves of invading tribes. Elected ministers like Newin endorse this attitude. And the supposedly pro-modern Democrat government gives tacit support (Chuan sent the Governor the BBC tape which provoked his outburst).
Moreover, the Chiang Mai incidents illustrate another recent trend. As Thailand’s civil society become more skilled and refined in the art of non-violent protest, officialdom increasingly resorts to some of the more violent and extreme forms of agitational politics - staged demos, inflammatory hand-bills, goon squads, and crude forms of rhetoric.