By Songwut Jullanan
Teerapon Anmai arrived in Bangkok for the first time in the late 1980s. He was a novice monk from Surin Province, looking for a temple to reside at. But the monks in Bangkok rejected him because they said he’s a “Laotian monk.”
“I was confused. I came from Surin. How am I Laotian? I am Thai,” Teerapon said.
Teerapon is currently a lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University. He has published academic research pieces and literary works on the stereotypes and discriminations against Thailand’s rural people, especially in Isan.
Rather than respecting Thailand’s cultural diversities, Teerapon said that traditionally, Bangkokians categorized the provincials as inferior.
“They associate Isan with Laos. They look down on Laos and speakers of the Laotian language, labeling them as outsiders.”
According to Teerapon, ethnic discrimination today is not as severe as in the past. Nonetheless, two specific forms of stereotyping persist, physical appearance and language.
The way you look
“อีดำ” (You damn black!)
“อีกรามใหญ่” (You damn big jaw!)
“ไอ้ดั้งแหมบ” (You damn flat nose!)
These are the insults Isan people often endure. But they are familiar lingo used in soap operas and movies to disparage characters of Isan origin.
“The problem for us is people are not aware that this is discrimination,” Teerapon said.
The skin-tone bias is rooted deeply in the Thai culture. Dark skin is equated with the lower class, while light skin indicates middle and upper-class people.
“People have light skin because they sit in an air-conditioned room, but the skin turns dark when you work hard all day outdoors. The skin-tone bias divides city people from country people,” Teerapon explained.
“In this country, you are either city people or rural people.”
The way you talk
Thailand is home to more than 70 languages. In a small province like Si Sa Ket, at least four languages are widely used. However, regional dialects are looked down upon.
“There’s still language discrimination in Thai society. When you speak a mixture of Thai and Laotian, they may laugh at you,” said Teerapon.
According to the academic, the suppression of language diversity started when Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram was in power. Isan people, for instance, were “forced to speak Thai.” This was an attempt at building the Thai nationalism during the era ahead of World War 2.
“Thai people need to understand that Laotian is a language in this linguistically diverse society, not a secondary language,” said Teerapon.
Today, several actors and actresses originally from Isan do not shy away from speaking Laotian. In turn, they are admired by the fans because of their ability to speak the dialect. Teerapon, however, noted that this admiration exoticizes a language, a form of language discrimination.
“The problem is speaking Laotian shouldn’t be something exotic. This country has a lot of people who speak several languages,” he said.
“Why does it have to be strange if good-looking people can speak Laotian or Cambodian? It should be something normal.”
The change you can believe in
Today, some independent filmmakers portray traditionally marginalized people as heroic characters.
“If you watch movies directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the main characters are not ethnic Thais anymore, they are either immigrants or marginalized people,” Teenapon said.
He also said many contemporary country music no longer compare the countryside’s hard life to the city’s comfort. Instead, they celebrate country life.
Nonetheless, Teerapon said mainstream culture still looks down on rural Thailand.