BEING THAI: A Narrow Identity in a Wide World

Nicholas Farrelly

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

    Abstract

    In January 2015 the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched its “Discover Thainess” campaign. In a country where travel and tourism support a significant fraction of the population, and directly contribute 8.6 per cent of GDP, the country's good image is a tremendous asset. This campaign is designed to highlight the “unique” qualities of the kingdom at a time when its international reputation has been buffeted by domestic political upheavals. With two military coups in the past decade, and an economy that has fallen behind the impressive growth rates elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand has looked to trade on its cultural endowments. Images of traditional dancers, colourful hill tribes and distinctive cuisine have led the push for visitors to “Discover Thainess”. This foreignerfocused marketing initiative matches an internal drive that encourages the Thai people to defend their heritage. These are both politically charged efforts. The cultural politics of “Thainess” has surged since General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, seized power. Since their overthrow of the elected government on 22 May 2014, the military rulers have quickly returned to familiar patterns of dictatorship that rely on ideas about the defence of the monarchy, the unity of the nation, and the elimination of subversive threats. The public relations entities that support military rule enjoy access to a reservoir of notions and beliefs about national identity that can help support the unelected government. The primary source of these notions and beliefs is the concept of “Thainess” (kwam pehn thai). In its simplest, official expression, Thailand is the “land of the free” (meuang thai or prathed thai), an assertion that emerges from the country's earlier efforts to remain uncolonized by European powers. The idea that such Thainess is distinctive, and even exceptional, has earned wide currency, especially during the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne since 1946. His connection to the Thai ideal also influences beliefs about status, hierarchy, obedience, loyalty and conflict. Pride in Thainess is lived out in food, language, etiquette and other cultural practices. Being Thai is to belong, in this interpretation, to a great and honourable civilization.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSoutheast Asian Affairs 2016
    Editors Malcolm Cook et al.
    Place of PublicationSingapore
    PublisherISEAS Publishing
    Pages331-344
    ISBN (Print)9789814695664
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2016

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