Need to embrace diversity
Being a Thai should be reinforced by the ideas of pluralism and inclusivity
On Friday, members of the international community came together at the Bangladesh Embassy in Bangkok to commemorate International Mother’s Language Day 2018.
A senior official from the Education Ministry, deputy permanent secretary Watanaporn Ra-Ngubtook, said Thailand supports the use of mother-tongue-based multilingual education to ensure that minority language learners are not left out of the national education system.
Watanaporn said the country remains committed to making cultural and linguistic diversity a cornerstone of development in Thailand.
“Our country is home to 72 unique ethno-lingusitic groups – a wealth of diversity that is among our national treasures,” she said. “Recognising the different linguistic and cultural backgrounds among our people, the Thai government has worked hard to protect and promote this cultural diversity.” She pointed to Thailand’s advances in this area, including Mahidol University’s Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education project. There is no denying that language is an important part of one’s identity. In fact, many of intra-country conflicts, such as the separatist insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-speaking South, are about competing narratives and identity. In this case, the Thai state-constructed identity has been rejected by the Malays of Patani.
Our state-constructed identity required one to speak Thai in public institutions, such as schools, municipalities, government offices, and so on. The idea is to reinforce “Thainess”, or “kwam pen Thai”.
Let us admit that many of those who grow up in the central region, where standard Thai is spoken, are condescending towards fellow citizens who speak Lao, Khmer, Malay or one of the hilltribe languages.
In that respect, Watanaporn’s statement is a breath of fresh air, but the truth is Thais do not treat dialects and languages of different regions with equal respect.
Many Thais also look down on migrant workers from neighbouring countries. Thai appreciation of these migrants is confined to the fact that they are willing to work much harder and for a lot less money.
Mahidol University was awarded the Unesco King Sejong Prize in 2016 for its mother tongue pilot project. The pilot phase is over and now is the time to re-examine it to see how we as a society could build on it. This pilot project has the potential to pave the way for a sound national language policy that takes into consideration pluralism as a concept, not just fancy words spouted by Thai officials. More debates will be needed, of course, if we are to build on what Mahidol put forth and turn it into policy.
Unesco’s director in Bangkok, Maki Hayakishiwa, was quoted as saying millions of primary school-aged children wordwide lack access to learning in a language they understand and that this remains an “invisible barrier” to education.
The statistics and studies are out there. It’s time for our policymakers rethink policy and take certain concepts and principles like pluralism and inclusivity into consideration. But for that to take place, they need to come to terms with their own prejudices and racist views. Ironically, many of whose so-called defenders of “Thainess” are children of immigrants whose parents or grandparents migrated to this country two or three generations ago.
They embrace this “Thainess” quickly, often abandoning their own cultural and ethnic roots, believing that this is the only way they can be accepted as a “Thai”. But being a Thai shouldn’t be a monopoly of the state or of people from the central region. And being a Thai shouldn’t require one to sell his or her soul.