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Khmer ‘Invisible Minority in Siam (Thailand)

Khmer Empire map from East-West around 1100 AD

Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’: Language, Ethnicity and Cultural Politics in North-Eastern Thailand
(Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand)
Ethnic Khmer speakers in Thailand number over a million.

Yet, despite their large numbers, they are regarded as an ‘invisible minority’, largely inconspicuous in the nation’s arena of cultural politics. Their invisibility has, to some extent, to do with their overall cultural similarity with surrounding ethnic Lao speakers of Thailand’s north-eastern ‘Isan’ region; like Isan Lao, they are syncretic Theravada Buddhists, and their village life revolves around wet rice agriculture. Such similarity contrasts with the conspicuous differences marking other minorities of Thailand, such as the Muslims in the south, or highlanders in the north. But Khmer invisibility is also the result of cultural politics at the national level, and with the specific histories of these nation-states in the modern period.
This paper examines the apathy towards Khmer identity in Thailand, both in the historical context of Thai nation-building and in specific language policies and practices.
Keywords: Northern Khmer, Thailand, ethnicity, nationalism, cultural politics

Northern Khmer Speakers in the Thai State Khmer speakers in Thailand inhabit the southern stretch of ‘Isan’ (north-east Thailand), a high plateau spanning the provinces of Surin, Buriram and Srisaket. In the south of these provinces lie the Dangrek mountains; covered with dense forest, the mountains drop precipitously on their southern escarpment into the Cambodian state. Although rugged, there are passes that in the past facilitated transportation and trade between upland and lowland (Cambodian) Khmers.
Language is the chief way in which Khmer are distinguished from their neighbours,
as their language differs radically from both the neighbouring regional language of Lao
and the national language, Thai. In many respects, Khmer speakers appear similar to
their neighbours, practising Theravada Buddhism and basing their village economies on
wet rice agriculture. There are differences in Khmer and Lao/Thai religious beliefs and
cultural practices, histories and identities, and perhaps even in physical phenotype, but
none of these are as salient in everyday life as language.
There are over a million speakers of Northern Khmer, making it probably the
largest non-Tai language spoken within the borders of the Thai state. Suwilai (1996,
p. 18) estimated there to be about 1.3 million speakers, and Smalley (1994, pp. 139,
*Correspondence to: Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University, Warin Chamrap, Ubon Ratchathani 34190, Thailand. Email:,
Asian Ethnicity, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2007
ISSN 1463-1369 print; 1469-2953 online/07/020111-20 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14631360701406247
151), citing the 1989 census, estimated there to be about 1.1 million—a number Smalley
(1988) argued is growing, even if the territory in which it is spoken is shrinking. Growth
of Northern Khmer has been somewhat unexpected. Keyes (1967, p. 8), for example,
predicted the language would disappear:
The number of Khmer speaking people remaining in the Northeast has slowly diminished to the present day (1960) size of not more than a half million out of a total population of nine million. Even the remaining Khmer are bilingual and I would predict that their distinctiveness will also disappear in time.
Smalley is correct when he cites the increase in Khmer speakers. However, I suspect
Keyes might also be right and that, despite the increased numbers of speakers over the
last 30 years, social conditions are such that Northern Khmer language may indeed
fade (Vail, 2006). The growth of Northern Khmer is a result of increased population
density in the area—a similar growth was seen in most parts of Thailand over the last 40
years. All in all, Northern Khmer is spoken in some 11 provinces.1 However the
heaviest concentrations of speakers are found in Buriram, Srisaket and especially Surin,
which is where I undertook most of my research.
The word for Khmer in Thai, khamen, can refer to the Khmer language, ethnicity or
even the country of Cambodia. The fluidity of the term, as I explain in this paper,
contributes to the ‘invisible’ status of Khmer ethnics. Among Khmer speakers in
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, one finds a wide range of names for the different
varieties of Khmer language and identity, and the nomenclature can be confusing.2 For
clarity in this paper, I refer to the Khmer people and language in Thailand as Northern
Khmer, and the Khmer of Cambodia as Cambodian.
There is a general assumption in the literature, based in part on geography and
national politics, that Northern Khmer and Cambodian are sharply different varieties
of Khmer. This assumption is widely shared both etically and emically. Smalley (1994,
p. 137), for example, remarks that it is not clear how far mutual intelligibility between
Northern Khmer and Cambodian extends, if at all, into the Cambodian state, and he
suggests they are different languages (see also Jenner, 1974). In the 1880s, French
explorer E´ tienne Aymonier and his Cambodian assistants frequently noted contrasts
between Northern Khmer and Cambodian speakers, in both language and customs
(Aymonier, 2000 [1895], passim). Villagers I interviewed also suggested that in the days
before the border was closed, as soon as one descended from the high plateau of Isan
1 Suwilai (1996, pp. 16 – 18) lists the populations of Khmer speakers in each of the following provinces:
Ubon Ratchathani, Srisaket, Surin, Buriram, Nakhon Ratchasima, Sakaew, Prachinburi, Mahasarakham, Roi Et, Chachaoengsao, Chantaburi, Trat, and a small category of ‘other’. Surin has the largest number of speakers (518,527), followed by Buriram (425,604) and Srisaket (284,482). Suwilai (1996, p. 22) cites the variety spoken in Surin as ‘standard Northern Khmer’, reflecting the tendency for linguistics to find or create a central Northern Khmer—an example of what Bakhtin (1981) terms ‘centripetal’ forces on language. In fact, Surin dialect was designated as ‘Standard Northern Khmer’ by a group of linguists in 1988, over the remonstrances of some Cambodian scholars arguing for unity with lowland Cambodian (Thomas, 1990, pp. 103 – 4).
2 Khmer in Isan call their language, among other things, khmer leu (Thai: khmer sung, English: high Khmer) and the Khmer of Cambodia, khmer krom or, in Thai, khmer tam (meaning ‘low Khmer’). Low/ high marks a geographical distinction since the southern tier of Isan sits on a high plateau to the north of the Cambodian state. But these terms are relative. Khmer speakers in Phnom Penh refer to themselves as khmer kandal; khmer krom refers to Khmer speakers living in the Mekong delta in the Vietnamese state, and khmer leu refers to non-Khmer speaking highlanders in the Cambodian provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri.
112 Peter Vail

down into Cambodia, people were very difficult to understand. One villager I
interviewed had worked for US intelligence in Siem Reap during the war. He told how
he could blend in well with Cambodians, and quickly learned to understand everything;
but he was careful not to speak, as his Northern Khmer accent would be immediately
detected. These differences in variety appear to be longstanding. Thel (1985, p. 103)
argues that political instability and ‘the loss of territorial integrity’ after the fall of
Angkor, roughly between the 14th and 16th centuries, set the geo-linguistic conditions
for Northern Khmer to diverge from the variety spoken in lowland Cambodia.
Bauer (1989), in contrast, suggests that the break might not be as great as is
generally assumed, and that other differences of variety could be more salient than that
between Northern Khmer and Cambodian. Had political borders been drawn
differently in the last 100 years, we might be drawing very different dialect maps. In
general, however, Thomas (1990) is probably right when he argues for substantial
linguistic differences between the two varieties, and, most importantly for present
purposes, it appears Northern Khmer speakers often exploit this difference in variety to
distinguish themselves from Cambodia, linguistically, culturally and politically.3
If Northern Khmer are linguistically distinct from Cambodians, they are
linguistically even more distinct from their neighbours in Thailand. The north-east of
Thailand, commonly called Isan, is a vast area populated overwhelmingly by speakers of
Lao. Isan regional identity is so completely associated with Lao language and ethnicity
that non-Lao speakers are marginal to, even excluded from, the Isan regional discourse.
People by and large associate Isan with Lao music, Lao cuisine (marked in particular by
glutinous rice rather than jasmine rice), Lao language and, in general, poverty. But
because the term ‘Lao’ also denotes the contiguous nation-state of Laos, the regional
name ‘Isan’ has in many contexts supplanted ‘Lao’ in Thailand.4 Those outside the
north-east area typically refer to ‘Isan’ music, ‘Isan’ cuisine, and ‘Isan’ language; those
inside the region vacillate between using the term ‘Isan’ and using ‘Lao’.
The ethno-linguistic term ‘Lao’, when uttered by speakers outside of Isan, is often
pejorative, suggesting country-bumpkinness and inferiority to central Thais. ‘Isan’
carries less of this social stigma, although it is not entirely free from it. Khmer speakers
also live in Isan, but are often regarded as so ethno-linguistically distinct from the Lao
that they cannot be easily categorized with them in these reified cultural terms. On a
recent taxi ride in Bangkok, the Lao-Isan driver repeated to me a somewhat common
stereotype, ‘Khmer aren’t real Isan. They’re not like us Lao; they are ‘‘black-hearted’’
(jai dam) like southerners.’ Others, however, do see them as genuine ‘Isan’ despite the
language differences, and subsuming them at large into Isan identity in this way effaces
ethnic difference in favour of geographical and economic similitude. In short, like most
labels of identity, ‘Isan’ identity for Northern Khmer speakers is fluid rather than rigid.
They may identify with being Isan in some contexts (or may be identified by others in
that way), but then may reject it for a Khmer or Thai (national) identity in other
contexts. This reflects the bivalent meaning of the term ‘identity’, a term that marks
group identification on the one hand, and a way of asserting difference, on the other.
The chief way in which Northern Khmer self-identified in my interviews was as
Thai. In the context of my interviews, that is in the context of being interviewed by
3 Northern Khmer speakers, when describing their relation to Cambodian, can to a certain extent choose
whether they want to emphasize mutual intelligibility or unintelligibility, depending on the situation and their aims at the time.
4 For a discussion of the different sentiments regarding ‘Lao’ and ‘Isan’ identities, see McCargo and Krisadawan (2004).

Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 113
someone conspicuously from another country, Khmer villagers insisted on calling
themselves Thais, and constantly qualified the meaning of ‘Khmer’ as being simply a
regional dialect. No one asserted an Isan identity to me, although it was occasionally
mentioned in passing. They would only identify as ‘Khmer’ after several rounds of
questions focusing on regional differences such as language; even then I found most
people resistant to the use of the term ‘Khmer’; as an identity, it appears to fall within
the realm of what Herzfeld (1997) terms the ‘culturally intimate’. Exceptions occurred
among the elderly villagers, whose formative experiences were at a time when being
Khmer was neither denigrated nor necessarily pitted against being Thai. Some of the
very oldest villagers were fiercely ‘Khmer’, although it is difficult to assess what they felt
that Khmerness to consist of. ‘Thai’, as most villagers depicted it, was clearly a national
designation, and was ethno-linguistically qualified through their claims that, although
Khmer speak Thai better and more clearly than even Bangkok Thais, they nevertheless
remain stigmatized because of their darker skin. I have more to say on national
identification below, but suffice it here to note that in these cases of disavowing Khmer
identity to outsiders such as myself, and constituting, in a sense, round Khmer pegs in
square Lao-Isan holes, we can begin to see from where the notion of ‘invisible minority’
may emerge.
The questions remain: Why do Khmer insist so often on a Thai identity as opposed
to a Khmer identity? How do we account for their disavowal of Khmer identity and
denigration of Khmer as a ‘local language’ (despite its rich cultural, literary and
linguistic heritage), on the one hand, and the embracing of a Thai national identity, on
the other?

Thai – Cambodia Relations and the Political Context of Northern Khmer Identity
In the larger picture, the cultural context of Khmer language in Thailand is a sensitive
issue, as Thailand has had such an ambivalent relationship with Khmer/Cambodian
culture generally. This ambivalence is a pervasive theme in both Thailand and
Cambodia, often becoming manifest in terrible events. In January 2003, for example,
mobs of Cambodians burned down the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh in reaction to
what they perceived as a cultural slur—a Thai television star, Suvanan Kongying, had
allegedly suggested that Angkor Wat, the symbolic heart of Cambodia, rightfully
belonged to Thailand. Although the actress had in fact not made this claim, indignant
Cambodians rioted in Phnom Penh, burned down the Thai embassy and attacked Thai
businesses. Because national discourses of ‘Thai’ and ‘Khmer’ are so volatile, some
historical background to Thai – Cambodia relations will be useful in understanding
contemporary Northern Khmer identity and language practices, as it provides key
features of the background in which many attitudes and policies have been shaped.
From the outset it must be recognized that much of Thailand’s royal court life,
language and culture is essentially descendent from the Angkor kingdom of the
Khmers. Wyatt (1984, p. 63) discusses how the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya ‘had in
the thirteenth century been the western provinces of the Angkorian Empire in the
region centred on Lopburi’. The end of the Angkor empire proper came at the hands of
the Tai kingdom of Ayutthaya. In 1431, King Borommaracha of Ayutthaya sent an
army to Angkor and sacked it, taking the royal regalia, and Angkor never recovered. Its
rulers fled to the area of what is now Phnom Penh, and Borommaracha installed his son
as a vassal ruler, until the city was abandoned soon thereafter (Wyatt, 1984, p. 70).
114 Peter Vail
Taking the royal regalia was significant, as at that period appropriating the trappings of
royalty—especially important Buddha images—was the way in which one kingdom
essentially took, symbolically and practically, the rights of sovereignty from a defeated
kingdom. Subsequent kings of Ayutthaya drew heavily on the extant Khmer political
infrastructure, especially the ‘Khmerized urban elite’ of Lopburi and Ayutthaya who
had a great influence on court life (Wyatt, 1984, p. 71). Wilaiwan (2001) has argued
persuasively that the Siamese elite of Ayutthaya were bilingual in Khmer and Thai,
which helps account for the enormous number of loanwords that have entered Thai
from Khmer, as well as the high (royal) register of Thai called Ratchasap.
Tangible evidence for Siam’s Khmer political ancestry abounds, from the diglossic
Ratchasap used with royalty, and Siamese court dances based conspicuously on Khmer
styles, to the detailed model of Angkor Wat proudly displayed at the Grand Palace in
Bangkok. But Thailand’s historical descent from the Khmer empire is rarely explicitly
admitted in national discourse. Heavy-handed nationalistic propaganda from the 1920s
through the 1960s effaced much of Siam/Thailand’s historical past and, instead,
projected a ‘Thainess’ back into time immemorial (Chai-anan, 1991; Thongchai, 1994).
The tendency in such nationalist discourse has been either to appropriate Khmer
culture and cultural artefacts as Thai, or at least to alienate them from their Khmer
roots. In 1988, for example, in a high-profile international row, Thailand demanded
that the Chicago Art Institute return a lintel that had been pilfered from Phanom Rung
temple in Isan’s Buriram province. The Thais demanded its return on the grounds that
it was a material part of Thai culture, sidestepping (or squashing) the fact that the
temple was built by Khmers in what was at the time of its building unequivocally a
Khmer domain (Keyes, 1991; Thongchai, 1994, p. 169). Similarly, in the 1960s Thailand
went to the World Court in a case against Cambodia for the ownership rights to Preah
Vihear in Srisaket Province, another Angkor-period temple. Thailand lost the temple, a
bitter defeat that still rankles in Thai –Cambodia relations today.

The Denial of Khmer Culture
When Khmer culture cannot be directly appropriated as Tai, its true origins are often
obscured. Such is the case with manuscripts written in Khmer Mul script, for example,
most of which are religious tracts written on palm leaves. In Thailand, this written
language is frequently not referred to as Khmer at all, but as Khom, an old Mon word
for Khmer (Bauer, 1989, p. 77). I suspect this usage was popularized precisely to
obscure Khmer influence by the Fine Arts Department formed during the rule of
military dictator Phibulsongkhram in the 1930s. Whether doing so was the actual
motivation or not, using a Mon name for Khmer writing alienates these written
artefacts from their Khmer heritage. During my fieldwork, I regularly asked Northern
Khmer-speaking villagers if they knew what Khom was; most had only a dim or
tentative awareness, and many did not know at all. That is, they knew the word Khom,
but they did not immediately associate it with Khmer. Those who knew or suspected
the script was Khmer were generally older villagers, especially those few who,
‘traditionally educated’ in local temples, knew how to write Mul script themselves. Still
others would recognize a script as Khmer, and not realize it was being designated as
Khom. Formal education certainly did not help: a highly educated doctor I met in
Buriram province had dug up an ancient inscription in his garden and asked me if I
could read it. Looking at it, I told him it was difficult for me to read Khmer, especially
old Khmer, to which he responded ‘It isn’t Khmer, it’s Khom.’ When I pointed out that
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 115 Khom was Khmer, he looked puzzled and asked, ‘Really?’ This is unsurprising given the emphasis in state education on producing national citizens. Northern Khmer speakers in Thailand, have, in other words, been alienated from a part of their cultural heritage through an obfuscatory change of name.

Anti-Khmer Sentiments
Much of the anti-Khmer sentiment in Thailand arises from two related sources. One,
which I alluded to above, stems from Thailand’s drive to create a unique national
identity. Nationalism in Thailand was first propagated by Rama VI (Vella, 1978), but
reached its jingoistic zenith only after the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s to
1940s under Field Marshal Phibulsongkhram and his chief architect of nationalism,
Luang Wichit Watthakan. Luang Wichit was fervent in his promotion of Thai national
identity, and was able to propagate it widely throughout the country by means of a
nascent mass media, especially radio, print and theatre. His writings set out to establish
the history and natural unity of the ‘Thai race’, with the Siamese reigning supreme.
Much of what he wrote had specific irredentist aims, looking to recover territory in
Laos lost to the French colonial authorities. Irredentism was extended to cover
Cambodians as well: Luang Wichit depicted Cambodians (as opposed to some
presumably ancient stock of ‘Khmer’) as essentially a degenerate form of Thai. In his
1941 book Thailand’s case, Luang Wichit (1941, pp. 129 – 30) writes:
The Cambodians are otherwise called ‘Khmer’ (pronounced as ‘Khamair’). But it is an
established fact that the Khmers and the Cambodians are not the same people. . . . About
fifteen centuries ago the Thai came down to this peninsula and, according to Monsieur
Etienne Aymonier, poured out in important influx, covering almost all the plains of
Indochina. The Thais, according to the eminent French orientalist professor Louis Finot,
spread themselves like an immense piece of cloth over the land from South China as far as
Burma. The Thai blood poured into Khmer veins with insinuating effect like water, to use
the expression of professor Louis Finot. The Khmers changed century by century. After five
hundred years of blood mixture, the Khmers became more and more similar to Thais both
physically and mentally. The coming into existence of this new name ‘Cambudja’ marked the
end of the old Khmer race and the birth of a new people who have 90 per cent Thai blood.
The theme of Khmer subordination to the dominant Thai race was a common one in
Luang Wichit’s writings, coming through again, for example, in the last lines of his
heavy-handed nationalistic play, Ratchamanu (cited in Barme´ , 1993, p. 125):
Thai soldiers: Eh! Khmers and Thais look just the same, Sir.
Ratchamanu: Of course, they’re Thais like us! A long time ago they happened to occupy the
old Khom territory and came to be called Khmers. In fact, we’re all really Thai brothers.
Thai soldiers: We should all be friends, no more war.
Ratchamanu: Yes, there’s no more need to fight. All of us on the Golden Peninsula are the
same . . . [but remember] the Siamese Thais [the Thais from Siam proper] are the elder
brothers . . .
Luang Wichit, who admired Goebbel’s skill in propaganda, pursued a racially based
irredentism aiming to recover the physical control of territory ceded to the French
several decades earlier (known as the ‘lost provinces’) which, later, formed the basis of
116 Peter Vail
nationalistic political antagonism during the Cold War. These historical events have
much to do with the shift in the composition of the regional state, from a ‘premodern’
alliance of kingdoms/muang to a territorially based modern nation-state. From the mid-
18th century, petty kingdoms in what are now the provinces of Surin, Buriram and
Srisaket, as well as Battambong, Sisophon, and Siem Reap in Cambodia, were aligned
in tributary relations with the Siamese court (and in many cases they were
simultaneously aligned in relation to Vietnam).
In day-to-day affairs, these petty kingdoms were highly autonomous, and few
outside their courts had dealings with any living, breathing Siamese. ‘Siam’ here was
not specifically an ethnic or national term, but was more a political designation
associated with the Siamese monarchy and its control over tributaries. Since it was not
based on any essentialized ethnic identity, ‘Siam’ could include people who were
ethnically not Thai, and in fact even Siamese courts are reported to have been ethnically
quite diverse (Jory, 1999). However, Siam is a term derived from the Khmer language—
it appears on inscriptions in Angkor—and it is not entirely clear that the Khmer use of
[siam] does not denote a more ethno-linguistically based category that contrasts with
Khmer. There was a saying among older Northern Khmer villagers, used to scare
children into obedience, that if they did not behave siam mo jap!—the Siamese will come
and get you! Whether this imputes an ethnically based identity to Siamese is not clear,
but what certainly is clear is that the Siamese are considered alien intruders. ‘Khmer’
and ‘Siamese’ are both slippery terms of identity, quite likely meaning different things
to different people, and changing over the course of time and context.
When the French began to encroach on (what is now) Cambodia and Laos
(exploiting those areas’ tributary relations to Vietnam, which it had already colonized),
Siam responded by modernizing politically: it transformed these outlying regions into
bureaucratic components of a centralized state rather than autonomous chieftainships
held in tributary relations. Siam competed as well as it could with France, sending out
cartographers to legitimate territorial claims and citing tribute relations recorded in
local chronicles as evidence for historical incorporations into the Siamese state
(Thongchai, 1994; Tully, 1996). In doing so, Siam was something of an ‘internal’
colonizer (Anderson, 1978; Thongchai, 1994; Vandergeest, 1993, p. 140) of outlying
areas. It used methods learned from the British to incorporate them in politically new,
‘modernized’ ways, including civil reforms instituting a new form of government
(Breazeale, 1975; Wyatt, 1984; Paitoon, 1984; Keyes, 1991), education (Wyatt, 1969;
Paitoon, 1988), the creation of a standing army (Battye, 1974), mapping (Thongchai,
1994), and religious reform based on a Bangkok variety of Buddhism (Kamala, 1997;
Wyatt, 1984). These reforms were resisted in Isan, often violently, in a series of
rebellions nowadays referred to collectively as the 1902 ‘Holy Man’s’ rebellion because
of their millenarian characteristics (Murdoch, 1974; Keyes, 1977; Paitoon, 1984; Gunn,
1990). The rebellions were brutally suppressed on both the Siamese and the French
sides and, subsequently, the local polities in what are now the Khmer-speaking
provinces of Surin, Buriram and Srisaket (among others) were drawn more firmly into
the expanding and modernizing Siamese state. These events have passed from living
memory, although I was able to interview one women aged in her mid-to-late 90s who
grew up in the immediate aftermath of that period and still complains about the
Siamese as alien encroachers.
In 1907, having already firmly colonized most of Cambodia (or, technically, made it
a protectorate), France took from Siam the border provinces of Battambong, Sisophon
and Siem Reap in Cambodia with aggressive gunboat diplomacy (Tully, 1996). What
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 117 had been the province of Siam Rat (‘where the Siamese rule’) under Siamese domination was renamed Siem Reap (‘where the Siamese were defeated’). As a testament to the differing perceptions of legitimacy and ownership, the city is to this day often still designated Siam Rat on Thai maps. It is these ‘lost’ provinces that later nationalists such as Luang Wichit and Phibulsongkhram wanted to recover from the French, and motivated them to make racially based irredentist claims over Khmer speakers.

Cold War Tensions
The year 1932 saw the end of the absolute monarchy in Siam, and, with the rise of
military dictatorships such as Phibul’s, a massive campaign that was largely successful
in inculcating a Thai national identity throughout the country. As part of the drive to
establish a national identity, in 1939 the country’s name was changed from the more
ethno-linguistically neutral ‘Siam’ to the clearly nationalist ‘Thailand’. This name was
designed to unite Tai-speaking people under one national rubric, but alienated non-Tai
speaking peoples, especially urban Chinese and ethnic Malays in the south, or
attempted to subsume them by such means as Luang Wichit’s dubious claims about
Khmer racial identity cited above.
When the French were defeated in World War II, Phibul lost no time in reclaiming
the ‘lost provinces’ of Cambodia. One of his first moves, unsurprisingly, was to change
the doubtlessly odious term Siem Reap to ‘Phibulsongkhram Province’ (Barme´ , 1993,
p. 170). Programmes to Thai-ify the reclaimed provinces were quickly instituted. Many
Thais were enlisted as teachers and quickly settled in teaching the Thai language to the
locals. A woman I interviewed who had moved to the reclaimed provinces at that time
recalls how much more energy was put into teaching Thai in these territories than into
teaching Thai in her native Surin, and how quickly a national infrastructure was then
being developed. Language and infrastructure were to be used as a basis to legitimize
political control in a clearly contentious area. Surin, in contrast, was a region already
securely incorporated into the Thai state, with a status unlikely to be contested when
the war ended, and thus not a high priority for development.
Indeed, soon after the war, Thailand was forced to cede the reclaimed provinces back
to France in exchange for entry into the United Nations. But many on the Thai right
were enraged that what was to them a legitimate part of the Thai kingdom had again
been lost. After ceding these provinces, Thailand began actively supporting the anti-
French insurgency of the Khmer Issara, which had strong ties between members of the
elite in Surin and Cambodians fighting for independence. After Cambodian
independence in 1953, relations between the states were initially good, but rapidly
deteriorated in the poisonous conditions of the Cold War and growing conflict in
At this time the leader of the newly independent Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk,
moved left in the political spectrum. As he did, right-wing dictators in Thailand,
especially Field Marshal Phibulsongkhram (1938 – 1944; 1948 – 1957) and Field
Marshal Sarit (1959 – 1963), propagated a jingoistic Thai national identity and actively
disparaged both Cambodia and Sihanouk. They also supported a new insurgency group
opposed to Sihanouk, the Khmer Serei. Border skirmishes became common, especially
after the mid-1950s when Sihanouk began making political overtures to communist
China. This was the beginning of rabid anti-communism in Thailand, eventually
culminating, perhaps, in the 1976 assertion by influential monk Phra Kitthiwuttho that,
although killing was a sin, killing communists was not (Keyes, 1987, p. 95).
118 Peter Vail
It was also, of course, the time in which tensions in Vietnam were mounting, and the
US was becoming involved militarily in support of the South Vietnamese. By the late
1950s, the border area in Thailand’s Chantaburi province was rife with clashes and
kidnappings of peasants by armed soldiers on both sides. The border area in Surin,
however, was quieter, in large part owing to a pro-Thai warlord named Dap Chhuon,
who was born in Surin and governed Siem Reap province at the time. In 1958, Dap
Chhuon became embroiled in a Thai/South Vietnamese/US-sponsored plot to
overthrow Sihanouk, but the plot unravelled and Dap Chhuon was killed (Sihanouk,
1973, pp. 102 – 11; Chandler, 1991, pp. 101 – 5). Sihanouk was enraged by the plot. He
railed against Thailand and the Thai dictator Field Marshal Sarit in vociferous radio
programmes broadcast from Phnom Penh that were translated into Thai. Sarit
responded in kind. In those years, Thai and Cambodian jingoistic nationalism was
reaching its zenith, and the Sarit – Sihanouk radio rivalry was one of the chief ways in
which it was publicly instantiated. The leaders hurled insults at one another and
lambasted one another’s countries. A joke in Thailand at the time went:
Q: Thai mai chop sii arai? (‘What colour don’t Thais like?’, where sii means colour)
A: Sii-hanouk!
Nationalist xenophobia between the two states finally peaked in a struggle over the
ancient Khmer temple, Preah Vihear (Thai: Phra Viharn). Preah Vihear is an Angkorperiod
Khmer temple that straddles the border between Srisaket province in Thailand
and Preah Vihear province in Cambodia. It is rough country and sparsely inhabited.
The temple sits high on a cliff overlooking Cambodia’s plains below, and the land on
which the temple sits forms part of the Mun river watershed in Thailand. Access from
the Cambodian side is nearly impossible because of the steepness of the cliff; access
from the Thai side is easier, although in the late 1950s it was not easy even travelling
there. Ownership of the temple became the site of an acrimonious controversy between
Cambodia and Thailand, between Sihanouk and Sarit, with lasting and tangible
repercussions for nationalism and identity among Northern Khmer speakers living in
Dap Chhuon, warlord of Siem Reap and sympathetic to Thailand, had turned a
blind eye to Thailand’s military fortification of the Preah Vihear temple grounds, but
after he was killed, Sihanouk demanded that the Thais relinquish it. Sihanouk
complained bitterly in his radio broadcasts, accusing Thailand of stealing Cambodian
heritage, and he cut diplomatic relations with Thailand three times; twice in 1958 and
once in 1961 (Nophadol, 1997 [2540], p. 68; Long, 1998 [2541]). The dispute involved
two competing discourses—from Cambodian claims to ancient Khmer heritage and
appeals to the history of the temple itself, and Thai claims of territoriality based on the
watershed’s location and the inaccessibility of the temple from the Cambodian side.
Although it appeared to be a black-and-white dispute between Thais and Cambodians,
both sides were aware of a grey area: the hundreds of thousands of Northern Khmer
speakers who lived on the Thai side, people whose identity and perhaps even allegiance
was potentially volatile.
The Northern Khmer of Isan were not often explicitly mentioned in the public
sphere, and apparently not made pertinent in the subsequent World Court case, but
clearly Thailand and Cambodia had differing views on which state those Khmer
speakers belonged to legitimately. Thailand, having slowly incorporated the Northern
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 119 Khmer-speaking regions into its state across the course of over 100 years (Paitoon,1984), would not even entertain the idea that those regions might not be part of Thailand. It is likely that most of the Khmer speakers in the region felt largely the same way, although perhaps not as adamantly. Sihanouk saw it differently. In 1958 he accused Thailand of stealing the regions of Surin, Buriram, Nakhon Ratchasima and Chantaburi, which, he declared, were properly part of Cambodia (Siam Nikhon, 31 December 1958). In 2002, I interviewed an aged Cambodian monk residing in Surin
Province, who told me much the same story. Cambodians, he said, felt the lower part of
Isan to be properly a part of Cambodia, primarily because it was populated by Khmer
speakers (albeit Northern Khmer) and had historically been part of the Angkor
kingdom. The monk told me how with no realistic hope of recovering these Khmerspeaking
regions, Sihanouk ‘settled’ for the ownership of Preah Vihear. A local
historian in Surin told me that, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Cambodian students
had demonstrated for the return of Surin to Cambodia, but by that time ‘such a thing
was no longer possible’.
Among the older villagers I interviewed, few would discuss this directly and those
who did were ambivalent about it. By and large they reiterated their acceptance of being
Thai citizens, but tempered this in several noteworthy ways. Several cited their
reverence for Sihanouk as the Khmer king, who, they said, faced a much more difficult
political situation than did the Thai king. These same villagers were then quick to point
out that they also admired and had a strong sense of allegiance to the Thai king. We
should recall that the ‘modernization’ of the region into a bureaucratic state had
occurred only a few generations earlier (in some cases within informants’ lifetimes), and
the religio-political significance of allegiance to kingship was (and is) still very much in
play. Other villagers recalled their kin and trade relations with lowland Cambodia that
had been cut off when the border was closed. Despite expressing a reverence for
Sihanouk, none invoked any connections between themselves and an Angkorian
heritage, and none expressed any interest in being part of the Cambodian state.
Nevertheless it is somewhat difficult to assess how they might have felt about this 45
years ago and whether what they claimed to feel now was being projected back onto
what they may or may not have felt then. Younger villagers (aged roughly under 45)
adamantly disavowed any connections to Cambodia.
Sihanouk took the case of Preah Vihear to the World Court in 1959. Thailand,
despite being utterly convinced of its rightful ownership to the temple (based on the
watershed it sits on), lost both the case and the temple to Cambodia in 1962 (Long,
1998; Cuasay, 1998). Thais were outraged. Anti-Cambodian sentiment reached feverpitch,
the border was sealed, and both Cambodia and Sihanouk were publicly maligned
throughout Thailand.

Thai and Khmer as National Identities
It is perhaps important to recall at this juncture that there is no lexical difference in Thai
between Khmer and Cambodian, as a language, nation or ethnicity; all are commonly
referred to as khamen.5 So the Northern Khmer of Surin and neighbouring provinces
were, in a discursive sense, caught in the middle of this nationalistic mud slinging. In the
aftermath of the Preah Vihear case, there were several large-scale anti-Cambodian
5 Khmer villagers where I researched began using Kampuchea as the name for Cambodia in order to distinguish it, but said this was not done in the past.
120 Peter Vail demonstrations and propaganda drives, especially in Srisaket province where the temple is. In some cases, Thai authorities ordered Northern Khmer villagers to burn
Khmer language materials, most of which were religious documents inscribed on palm
leaves. One informant told me how he and his friends, when ordered to do so, could not
go through with it because of the potential religious consequences; they felt they would
accrue too much baap, or Buddhist demerit. They removed the manuscripts from the
temple, but reportedly hid them instead of destroying them. The abbot of one temple
related to me how officials approached him and forbade him giving sermons in Khmer,
since it would suggest his allegiance was with the Cambodian rather than the Thai side.
These linguistic interventions—insisting Khmer language materials be destroyed and
disallowing Khmer language sermons—demonstrate clearly how national constructs
were impinging on everyday life. The Khmer in Cambodia had formed a national
identity in the postcolonial period, but one that was maligned in the Thai state, while
for Northern Khmer speakers in Thailand, faced with an increasingly jingoistic
government, it appears the only option was to be Thai.
I want to avoid making essentializing generalizations here about local Northern
Khmer identity. It is too simplistic to say that Surin Khmer universally felt themselves
to be either Thai or Khmer, especially given their increasing but uneven incorporation
into the Thai state over several generations. Nor do I want to suggest that Khmer were
living in the Thai state or acquiescing to a Thai national identity against their will.
There appears to have been a lot of loyalty among these Khmer to the Thai state,
although this was not true everywhere. In any event, how identities were and are
constructed—on what combination of language, descent, religion, class, political
affiliation, royal allegiance, and nationalism—is a complex affair, which I discuss in
more detail below. What I do want to suggest, however, is that in a relatively brief span
of time, and in the black-and-white world of ColdWar politics, ‘Thai’ and ‘Cambodian’
became two dominant, mutually exclusive national identities (see also Vandergeest,
1993, p. 135). Whatever ‘Khmer’ may have signified before, it now took on an
overarching national meaning associated with the Cambodian state. Northern Khmer
in Isan, whether they willingly assented or not, generally had little practical choice but
to embrace Thai national identity when dealing with officialdom, or, for those who
dissented, to position themselves as radically outside the Thai state order (as the
Communist Party of Thailand eventually did throughout Isan).6 As a result, their
‘Khmer’ identity became, at best, a regional variation within a broader Thai national
identity, and at worst a cultural and social stigma. Today, many Khmer speakers in
Thailand describe themselves as being ‘embarrassed’ or ‘shy’ to be Khmer.
Even when direct tensions between Cambodia and Thailand subsided, the ensuing
years saw little but trouble and conflict inside Cambodia: the devastating American
bombing campaigns, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent civil war
lasted into the 1990s. Cambodian refugees poured into Thailand, and lived in immense
refugee camps on the Thai –Cambodia border for ten or more years. In what was
perhaps a cruel revenge for the nation’s 1962 loss in the World Court, Thailand at one
point rounded up more than 40,000 Cambodian refugees from the east, trucked them to
Srisaket province, and repatriated them to Cambodia by forcing them over the cliff near
6 It is also interesting that the Thai government always depicted the Communist Party as being necessarily something other than ‘Thai’ (Chai-anan, 1991, p. 73), implying that one could not be ethnically or nationally Thai and communist at the same time.
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 121
Preah Vihear. Apparently thousands of these refugees died (Shawcross, 1984, p. 90;
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1987, p. 26; Cuasay, 1998, p. 882).7
Khmer speakers whom I interviewed in Surin about their memories of this time
recall being ‘embarrassed’ to be Khmer, and wanted to disassociate themselves as much
as possible from Cambodia and especially from the Cambodian refugees. For example,
two villagers told me that, even when they would go to work in Bangkok, they would
consciously avoid speaking Khmer with each other. Had they been mistaken for
Cambodians, they would have been intensely ‘embarrassed’ and perhaps even at risk. A
Khmer-speaking colleague of mine in Isan tells of how he would hide his Khmer origins
when he went to school in other parts of Thailand; like other villagers, he had
internalized the denigration of Khmer identity within the national context.
Nationalistic antagonism between Thailand and Cambodia still erupts, sometimes
suddenly and violently, and usually spurred by some issue of national cultural identity.
Cambodia, for example, has refused to send boxing teams to compete in Thailand,
claiming the Thai have appropriated Cambodian boxing heritage and deceivingly
renamed it Muay Thai. In a more violent case discussed above, rioters in Phnom Penh
burned down the Thai embassy and went on a rampage against Thai-owned
businesses—all because a Cambodian newspaper article erroneously reported a Thai
television star opining that Angkor Wat should belong to Thailand. Other disputes,
such as those concerning the construction of casinos along the border, are quickly
framed in nationalistic terms even though they are chiefly about business. Cultural
animosity runs deep between these two nationalistic states, and seems to simmer just
below a calm facade.
Overall, Cold War Thai nationalism and the perceived failure of the Cambodian
state have helped inculcate in young generations of Northern Khmer an overarching
Thai national identity. Coupled over the last three or four generations with effective
bureaucratic, economic, religious and social integration into the Thai state, most
Northern Khmer speakers under the age of about 45 or so now firmly identify
themselves as Thai who happen to speak a different local language. By and large, they
actively disavow any connection to Cambodia, and are ambivalent or apathetic towards
a regional Khmer identity. Older Northern Khmers whom I interviewed do not reject
their Khmer identity but rarely voice it. Their experiences during the Cold War (which
was not so ‘cold’ in Southeast Asia) lead them to be circumspect in how and when this
identity is to be expressed. It is this combination—of assent to Thai-ness and a rejection
of any Cambodian cultural connections—that in the larger picture of cultural politics
has rendered the Northern Khmer an ‘invisible minority’.
I began this paper arguing that the chief difference between ethnic Khmer and their
Isan – Lao neighbours was manifest in language. To explicate this difference, and to
show the importance of bilingualism and language shift in Khmer identity, I want to
turn now to an assessment of language policy and language integration in Thailand. By
doing so, I aim to provide a linguistic context for the understanding of language
practices and identity of Isan Khmer today.
7 Explanations or this atrocity vary. Thai authorities suggest that repatriating refugees in Preah Vihear was more humane than repatriating them in Chantaburi because the Vietnamese forces controlling the Preah Vihear region were likely to be more merciful than the Khmer Rouge forces controlling the areas contiguous to Chantaburi. But the fact that Thai authorities had ordered forcible repatriation of these refugees into a war zone, and the cruel means by which they effected this repatriation, suggest that mercy was not an especially high priority.
122 Peter Vail
Official Language Policy in Thailand and Early Education in Surin
Linguists and anthropologists frequently talk about Thai as the ‘official’ state language
of Thailand, but none to my knowledge have specified where that official status is
documented. William Smalley, for example, whose 1994 book Linguistic diversity and
national unity: Language ecology in Thailand is by far the most comprehensive survey of
language in Thailand, frequently mentions the fact that Thai is the sole official
language of Thailand, but never does he show where it is so designated. The same is
true for Esman (1990, p. 188), who argues forcefully that Thai is the ‘exclusive medium
of communication in every dimension of life that is affected by the activities of
government’,8 but again provides no specifics. Anthony Diller, in his 1991 article ‘What
makes Central Thai a national language?’, also does not specify, but he does explain
convincingly how Thai has come to be perceived as the national language. Diller writes,
‘Especially during the period since ‘‘Thailand’’ has become the nation’s name, typical
modern national-language functions of Thai have become ingrained and obvious; so
much so, that to claim that ‘‘Thai is the National Language of Thailand’’ now sounds
like a tautology’. Diller goes on to show that Thai does in fact have the ‘main nationallanguage credentials as normally recognized’ by Omar (1987, cited in Diller, 1991),
except for ‘universal first language status’. Thai is used in education, government, law,
religion and mass media and so is clearly established as the official language.9
Thai has in fact never been designated the official language in any of the
country’s numerous constitutions, although the constitutions themselves are all
composed in Thai. Thai language is, however, officially disseminated by the Ministry
of Education’s charter, and explicitly endorsed in the National Education Act (1999
[BE 2542]):
Section 23 Education through formal, non-formal, and informal approaches shall give
emphases to knowledge, morality, learning process, and integration of the following,
depending on the appropriateness of each level of education:
(4) Knowledge and skills in mathematics and languages, with emphasis on proper use of the
Thai language [Emphasis added, and note ‘languages’ here is pluralized; in Thai the plural is
not marked, and so it is not entirely transparent what is meant by ‘languages’ in this official
translation.] 8 Esman is worth quoting in full. He writes (1990, p. 188), ‘Thailand is an example of a consistent unremitting, and uncompromising language policy—the promotion by state elites of the language and indeed the specific dialect of the largest and politically dominant community as the exclusive medium of communication in every dimension of life that is affected by the activities of government. The limited exception for Malay-speaking Muslims in the far south is a reluctant concession to a small minority that is willing to accept marginal political status rather than yield its culture. Minority languages and even dialects of Thai are systematically devalued and delegitimatized. Anyone who wishes to advance in the world must do so in standard Thai. This unilingual policy is in the service of an assimilationist strategy that seeks eventually—and the sooner the better—to eliminate and supplant existing ethnic pluralism, thereby incorporating all the permanent residents of the land into a culturally homogeneous, therefore unified, Thai political community’. Although Esman may be overstating government intolerance for other languages and dialects, his points about social mobility and the incorporation into a unified Thai political community are well conceived.
9 In what is really a penetrating article, however, Diller shows how ‘Central Thai’ is actually a rather complicated concept, and how its complexity is obscured by common usage and misconceptions about the homogeneous nature of language.
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 123
Interestingly, Thai identity is also specifically endorsed by the Act:
Section 7 The learning process shall aim at inculcating sound awareness of politics;
democratic system of government under a constitutional monarchy; ability to protect and
promote their rights, responsibilities, freedom, respect of the rule of law, equality, and
human dignity; pride in Thai identity; ability to protect public and national interests;
promotion of religion, art, national culture, sports, local wisdom, Thai wisdom and universal
knowledge; inculcating ability to preserve natural resources and the environment; ability to
earn a living; self-reliance; creativity; acquiring thirst for knowledge and capability of selflearning on a continuous basis. [Emphasis added]
The Education Act of 1977 had similar requirements, although they are somewhat more
explicit about the fundamental role of language. In section 2, clause 13 reads, ‘The state
has thus established education so that the population will have the ability to use Thai
language well in communicating and understanding.’ The Act further stipulates (clauses
26 and 27) that all educational materials must be appropriate to Thai culture and
identity, and that textbooks cannot go against Thai culture.
So, in national education policy at least, Thai is clearly endorsed as the country’s
official language and identity and indeed, virtually no one in the country seems to
imagine any other language assuming that role or even sharing it. This has come about
not only historically through the development of the modern state, but also
discursively, as language varieties other than Thai are subsumed into Thai. The Thaiification
of other language varieties and identities forms part of Thailand’s national
consolidation. Gupta (1985, p. 14), for example, claimed, ‘Varieties of Thai are spoken
natively by around 91 per cent of the population, thus Thai is an obvious choice as a
sole official language. Thailand has never been under the dominion of a colonial power,
another factor removing languages from competition’. The varieties of ‘Thai’ that
Gupta mentions obliquely here are largely Lao and the closely related Khammuang of
the north, spoken by roughly 35 per cent of the country’s population. The designation
of Lao as a variety of Thai is debatable (see Diller, 1991, p. 98); but since I am here
chiefly concerned with the status of Khmer language and identity in Thailand, I will not
elaborate the point here. Gupta’s second point, however—that Thailand was never
colonized and as a result has less linguistic competition from presumably colonial
languages—needs closer attention.
It is true that Thailand was never colonized by a European country, a fate that befell
all Thailand’s contiguous neighbours. This fact is a defining feature in the narrative of
Thai history. It is what the Thais ‘tell themselves about themselves’, as Clifford Geertz
(1973) put it. Anderson (1978) points out how Thai nationalism was, significantly,
instituted from above; it was not forged in a struggle against a European colonizer as it
was in surrounding countries. Moreover, I should reiterate here that Siam itself can be
regarded as a colonizing power, a point best made in Thongchai Winichakul’s 1994
book Siam mapped. As mentioned above, at the end of the 19th century, Siam effected a
fast and far-reaching political transformation from principality (muang) to nation-state,
incorporating smaller, surrounding tributary kingdoms as provinces. Reforms that
were implemented created a centralized bureaucracy, regulated Buddhism, reformed
taxes, inaugurated a standing army and introduced mass education. The successful
communitas of nationalism in Thailand obscures this internal colonial history both
domestically and to the foreign observer. In part this is because Siam was not a
124 Peter Vail
European colonizer and thus falls outside the frame we normally associate with
colonialism. Furthermore, we view the nation-state of Thailand through a lens in which
such national units have become naturalized.
Language was an essential component of these reforms. Unsurprisingly, teaching
Thai language was one of the two primary purposes of establishing the education
system from the outset (Wyatt, 1969; Paitoon, 1988). In pre-modern times, rural areas,
including Khmer-speaking Surin, depended on temples for basic education. Most of
this education was religious in nature and, in the Northeast at least, did not typically
involve learning Siamese Thai. Instead, monks and novices in Surin could learn Khmer
Mul, a sacred religious script. But also available was a Lao script, called Tua Thai Noi,
and Dhammic script called Tua Thai Yai (Paitoon, 1988, pp. 89 – 91). Vernacular
scripts, whether Siamese, Khmer or Lao, do not appear to have been in circulation.
Aymonier, however, who visited Surin in 1883 – 1984, reports that the only script he
saw in use was in fact Siamese (2000 [1895], p. 201). Aymonier may have been referring
to the Siamese-backed ruling court in Surin’s urban centre and not in the countryside,
but it is impossible now to tell. At any rate, education was not standardized, did not use
Thai as a medium for instruction, and had explicitly religious goals. Children of the
elite, who could expect to get an appointment at the court, were sent to Bangkok to
study Thai (Paitoon, 1988, p. 92).
Although a government Act created a national school system in 1892, this had no
discernable effect in the north-eastern countryside until at least 1898 when the state
began the slow process of instituting mass education. The north-east was always the last
area to be developed and, for many years, temple schools coexisted side-by-side with the
slowly developing state schools. Paitoon discusses how the first state schools came in
two varieties, munlasuksa (two year basic education) and prathomsuksa (elementary
education). The chief goal of the munlasuksa schools was to provide instruction in Thai
language and arithmetic, as preparation for entry into the prathomsuksa schools. The
first munlasuksa in Surin were opened in 1901. Students performed dismally: none of the
Surin students passed the exam from munlasuksa 1 to munlasuksa 2, and only four
passed the level 2 exam (Paitoon, 1988, p. 97). Clearly, there were significant obstacles
for Northern Khmer children learning Thai, and far more so than for Lao-speaking
children, as Lao is lexicogrammatically very similar to Thai. This continues to be an
issue today (see e.g. Sangrunee, 1995).
As part of a far-reaching religious reform associated with the Sangha Act of 1902,
monks at temple schools were no longer permitted to teach Lao and Khmer scripts;
only Siamese Thai script was to be taught. Private schools, however, could teach in
other languages. In a review of education policy, Prince Damrong, the interior
minister, decided that ‘in areas where two languages were in use, as in the North and
Northeast, ‘‘the local language may be taught, but only education in [central] Thai may
be supported by the government’’’ (Damrong, cited in Wyatt, 1969, p. 333). The
Sangha Act and other bureaucratic, economic and political reforms caused widespread
dissatisfaction in the north-east, leading to a succession of armed revolts and
resistance. Siamese forces crushed these rebellions ruthlessly, and in the process,
Bangkok was able to integrate them more tightly into the emerging territorially defined
state of Siam. After the rebellions were put down, schools spread more quickly. By
1921, a royal decree made school compulsory for children aged 7 to 14 (through
prathomsuksa 4), apparently with such success that by 1926 an official from Bangkok
reported of Khmer-speaking Surin province that ‘A lot has already been done
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 125
administratively to make them realize they are ‘‘Thai’’ people’ (Paitoon, 1988,
p. 108).10
Although the period leading up to the fall of the monarchy in Siam (1932) saw the
beginnings of an education system prioritizing Thai language, it was only under military
dictator Phibulsongkhram that such schooling took on an overtly populist and
nationalistic flavour. Beginning with a decree promulgated in 1939, Phibul outlawed the
use of regional appellations throughout Thailand, meaning it was no longer acceptable
to talk about Thailand in terms of ‘Northern Thai’ or ‘Isan’, and that the only
permitted word was the homogenizing ‘Thai’ (Phibulsongkhram, 1940a). Also in 1939,
the name of the country was changed from Siam to Thailand, specifically to foster a
sense of nationalism, as noted above.
In 1940, Phibul promulgated an explicit language policy, one laden with nationalist
ideology. To ensure that the nation ‘prospered and progressed’, Phibul announced the
‘duties of Thai citizens regarding language and letters’. First, all citizens were to admire
and respect the Thai language and must feel honour in using it. Second, it was the duty
of all Thai citizens to learn Thai language and letters, the ‘language of the nation’, and
citizens must at the very least be able to read and write it. Citizens were also to ‘support
and induce’ those citizens who did not yet know Thai to learn it. And third, citizens
were not to use their regional identification, birthplace, residence or regional accent as a
means to express [cultural] difference. Phibul argued that, ‘All citizens must respect the
fact that when they are born they have Thai blood, and all speak the same Thai’
(Phibul, 1940b; for parliamentary reactions to Phibul’s proclamations, see Bupha,
1986).11 These declarations aimed primarily to force the assimilation of Thailand’s
urban Chinese and southern Muslim communities, but they applied also to Northern
Khmer speakers in Surin. The abbot of one local temple during my field research
remembers vividly when Thai government officials came to the temple and forbade the
monks to speak in Khmer. The abbot also mentioned that, once the government
officials were out of earshot, this directive was not strictly followed.
The subsequent two to three generations witnessed Thai effectively inculcated as the
national language, to the extent that there are probably no longer any monolingual
Northern Khmer speakers in Isan. Among the myriad ways in which Thai language has
penetrated village life, through radio, television, books and newspapers, school was and
remains the primary vehicle.
The medium of instruction in school is Thai for all subjects, including English, and
children take classes that specifically teach Thai language. This is all in keeping with the
Thai Education Act cited above and the role of Thai as the national language.
Language ideology is prominently instantiated in the school, both materially and in
practice. The classrooms, like all classrooms in Thailand, display at the front the
tripartite symbols of the Thai Nation, Religion and King, and are adorned with cut-out
alphabets of Thai and English on bulletin boards or taped to the walls. In some rooms I
visited, hanging signs read nuu rak phasaa Thai, meaning, ‘I [diminutive form] love Thai
language’. Here the diminutive form of ‘I’ is meant to express a child’s voice; thus the
sign is modelling what a child ought to believe.
10 Seidenfaden (1958, p. 115) observed that a few years earlier, in about 1911, ‘The Khmers, in spite of Thai
only being taught in the schools, still cling to their language and any particular custom of their’s own [sic]
but are as good Thai citizens as any Thai.’
11 Some of Phibul’s directives were decidedly odd. To modernize Thailand, for example, he ordered that
certain Western practices be observed, including that all men wear Western-style hats and kiss their wives
goodbye when they went to work. See Kobkua (1995).
126 Peter Vail
Thai and English are prestige languages of the school. English is taught very poorly,
and children in the villages where I conducted fieldwork could say little besides a few
stock phrases. The phrases ‘Good morning, teacher’ (chanted in unison irrespective of
the time of day), and ‘Thank you teacher’ largely exhaust the students’ communicative
competence. Students also learn the English alphabet and some basic vocabulary.
Although the students learn minimal English, they are inculcated with the understanding
that English is a prestige language worthy of significant class time.
This is in stark contrast to Khmer, which is given no official status and is even
actively denigrated. In the past, the school expressly forbade the use of Khmer, and
children who transgressed in class were charged one baht for their transgression, or if
they were too poor to pay a baht, they were given menial chores. This penal programme
for language was instituted ostensibly because Khmer children did very poorly on Thai
language tests, but it also rather clearly demonstrates ethno-linguistic chauvinism. One
day, for example, when I was visiting the village school, a teacher asked the class, for
my benefit, what appeared to be a stock (and rehearsed) question:
Teacher: What are Khmer?
Students (in rehearsed unison): Dark!
Dark skin is strongly devalued in Thai national culture, and here Khmer students’
phenotypical dark skin becomes almost a ritual chant, in Thai, of their own
Teachers claim that the children nowadays speak Thai well enough that they no
longer need to punish linguistic infractions, although Surin province as a whole still
consistently scores among the lowest of any province on standardized Thai tests.
Children are still admonished to speak Thai but, as I witnessed, bits of Khmer here and
there are not dealt with harshly.
There is also a strong norm in the villages I studied for parents to speak exclusively
Thai with their children. This is done purposefully as a way to prepare children for
school, and for eventual success in the Thai economy thereafter. Thai is seen as a
critical tool for socioeconomic success, and the consistency with which parents use Thai
with their children attests to the efficacy of national language ideology. Those few
parents who used Khmer with their children were deemed retrograde by the majority
who used Thai. A linguistic snapshot of present practices would show a domain-specific
bilingualism, with Khmer being the adult home and village language, and Thai the
official, supra-village (or supra-regional) language. As I have argued elsewhere (Vail,
2006), the domains in which Khmer is used appear to be shrinking, as villagers move to
the cities for work and rural villages become deterritorialized. It is thus possible to
interpret the current bilingualism as an intermediate step on the way to an overall
linguistic shift to Thai and the eventual loss of Khmer.
Examining the macro-politics of national identity, on the one hand, and specific
language policies and practices, on the other, we can see where the apathy to Khmer
identity originates. Khmer speakers are disinclined to be ‘Khmer’ because of the
association with the troubled Cambodian state. At the same time, they are largely
excluded from the regional Isan identity characterized as Lao, and they are also drawn
towards being and speaking Thai because of the economic opportunities that doing so
affords and because of the successful inculcation of national identity. Connections
between Khmer speakers and their regional history have been obscured as a part of
Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’ 127
Thai nationalist history and, apart from a few ethnic revivalists among the Khmer
urban middle class (Denes, 2004), there is very little interest among villagers in
establishing a visible Khmer regional identity for the purposes of political gain, local
empowerment or cultural nostalgia. Khmer speakers prefer to self-identify as Thai, are
apathetic to the viability of a Khmer identity and have thus been rendered, from within
and without, as ethnically ‘invisible’.

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