Since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 13, Thais the world over have been in mourning. After 70 years of a monarchy that kept the country united despite internal and external stressors, what’s next for Thailand? Are there other sources of Thai unity and nationalism?
Over the past two summers, I conducted a study in northern Thailand to gauge how Thais felt about their country. I had just over 1,000 participants read one of five short narratives about Thai nationalism, each framed around a different aspect of the topic. These aspects included the late King Bhumibol, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the majority religion of Buddhism, the Thai language and Kukrit Pramoj (a famous literary figure who also served as prime minister in 1976-1977).
Participants then played a game designed to measure the strength of their nationalism. Though nationalism can have both negative and positive aspects, I used it in a positive sense to denote a feeling of belonging to the nation as a distinct and cohesive whole. In the game, participants distributed a sum of money and could favor their fellow northerners or give more broadly to Thai citizens from other regions.
The figure below displays how often participants gave money to Thais from other regions. The higher this frequency, the stronger their feelings about national identity because this came at the expense of giving to co-ethnics from the north.
Subjects who read the king narrative gave to non-northerners 32 percent of the time. Two other narratives caused subjects to give to non-northerners at higher frequencies, indicating that they elicited stronger national identities.
The results of this study suggest four things about Thai politics:
1) The crown prince may not do a bad job boosting national unity.
The effect of the prince narrative was identical to the king narrative — participants gave to non-northerners 32 percent of the time.
One interpretation is that study participants saw the king and prince narratives simply as two versions of Thai royalty. Such a finding is not surprising, as the prince’s visibility as the sole legal heir to the throne has increased with public events such as the Bike-For-Mum and Bike-For-Dad national bicycle rides. The prince’s face has also increasingly appeared in public portraits around the country.
But some analysts doubt the Thai public’s affection for the prince and his less-than-royal behavior. The study results may also reflect the fact the prince is close to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is himself a northerner. Thus, northerners may have their own reasons to think favorably of the prince.
2) Respecting regional culture and differences will be important.
The Thai language narrative had study participants display considerably less nationalism than all the others. Participants who read this narrative gave to non-northerners only 28 percent of the time. This may reflect the northern region’s past as the separate Kingdom of Lanna for over 600 years ; the region became fully incorporated into modern-day Thailand in 1899.
Northerners, who sometimes refer to themselves as the Lanna people, speak a different language in the home. Thai governments banned their written script in the early 1900s and took other measures to suppress local language, religion and culture. Thailand’s schools teach in standard Thai (what linguists call Central Thai or Siamese). But this shared national language appears to do less to make northern Thais feel strongly nationalistic, most likely because of this history of cultural repression.
Being more accepting of regional culture and differences may prevent a repeat of calls for northern separatism like those that preceded the coup in 2014. These separatist groups emerged following a decade of the region’s democratic voice being overridden by non-democratic forces as well as the violent crushing of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok, which were strongly supported by northerners.
3) Buddhism is a strong focal point of Thai unity.
That the Buddhism narrative elicited stronger national identity than the king narrative was somewhat surprising, given the king’s popularity. Most Thais follow the Buddhist religion and follow Buddhist traditions in their daily lives. There are frequent religious festivals throughout the year, and Buddhist temples (wats) are the center of local communities. Of course, the study’s narrative may have brought Buddhist principles of kindness and tolerance to subjects’ minds, which may also have reminded participants of this unifying aspect of their culture – and increased their sense of identity with Thais from other regions.
4) Thais may identify with other national figures — not just the king.
The study’s result on Kukrit Pramoj is more surprising. A former dancer, film star, journalist, publisher and politician, Kukrit was a national figure of prodigious talents. He also founded two political parties and served briefly as prime minister. He was a member of the larger royal circle, a great- grandson of King Rama II (who fathered 73 children), so was not entirely disassociated from the Thai monarchy.
However, the fact that study participants who read this narrative gave to non-northerners at the highest rate (37 percent), suggests in part that other great achievements of Thai national figures can help unite the country.
Who will be the next great popular figures in Thailand? The nation has no shortage of heroes, from Cannes award-winning film directors, to famous movie stars, to SEAwrite novelists, to world-famous sports personalities and any number of individuals engaged in world-class pursuits, from music to academics to philanthropy.
The longstanding Buddhist traditions in Thailand and the population’s admiration for national figures suggest there are ways to preserve Thai unity and nationalism — even after the death of the king, who was such a strong unifying force in Thailand.
Joel Sawat Selway is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and the director of the Political Economy of Development Labs (PEDL). He writes on Thailand, as well as more broadly on ethnicity, nationalism, development and conflict.