108th Meeting – Tuesday, July 27th 1993


The Differential Integration of the Karen into the Thai State during the Reigns of Rama V & VI

A talk by Ron Renard

Present: Rita and Philip Matthews, Ralf and Margareta Lindroos, Hans Bänziger, Yves Conrad, Yasuhisa Tanigucai, Bernard Sumner, John Cadet, Gary Suwannarat, Simon Canter, Marc Stanton, Murray Walker Scott, Bernadette Bache, Read Vandervilt, Michael Bullard, Emily Hare, Larry Ashmun, Geoff Walton, E.J. Haas. An audience of 20.


Summary of the talk:

In the early Southeast Asian world there were basically two classes of people: the Tai who lived in cities and towns (and considered themselves civilized) and the Kha who lived in the forest (and were considered by the Tai to be uncivilized). The Kha practiced a shifting agriculture in the forest with no detriment to it. However, this is no longer possible – too many people. Mention of the Karen first appears in 1811 in central Thai and in 1694 in the Northern Thai Chronicles, however, they were here hundreds of years before. The Tai obtained many forest products from the Kha: sandalwood, rhino horn, minerals, medicines, etc. It is known that the kings of Ayutthaya sent many forest products to China. Some of the Karen and other people living in the hills were rather well off in terms of the times. The Thais used the Karen as elephant handlers, and in times of war as spies and porters. In the 1800s some Karen were given noble titles and while some, house Karen, were under the away of the king, many – jungle Karen – were beyond his reach. There is a long tradition of Thai people running away to live with Karen in order to escape; even a few Japanese soldiers as well. The situation changed completely with the coming of the West, particularly in the concept of a Nation-State. Early in his reign, Rama V accepted the idea of the rule of law and instituted citizenship in a nation state. He felt Thailand was under-populated and wished to bring all the diverse peoples into the country as Thai citizens. In the early 1900s a large number of Karen and other peoples were assimilated into the Thai population. Another major change was the creation of the Royal Forestry Department in 1896, which became more and more powerful. It was molded on the European idea of the commercial exploitation of the forest and caused conflicts for those people living there. There was another drastic change in thinking during the reign of Rama VI. He told his father that the Northern Thai people must be tamed. He felt that the Chinese were a threat, especially after the Chinese Revolution. The National Education Act was instituted to make Chinese and others into central Thai. Rama VI became overly obsessed with Love Thailand and Thai-ness. Those people living in the forest were now of two different classes than they had been before: either they were citizens and therefore Thai or if living outside integrated areas they were non-Thai, i.e. aliens. The Hmong, Lisu, Yao and Akha have come only in the last 100 years. The people who live in the forest cannot have a house registration card as a house or village cannot be in the forest and through this and other such insidious ways people who have been here for centuries and are loyal subjects are being disenfranchised. Before 1900 there was no hill tribe problem. It has been created (especially since the 1950s) by the Thai state treating hill tribe people in non-Thai ways.