Why is Nationalism in Thailand Different From Other Southeast Asian Countries?

April 10, 2017 Hospitality News

Nationalism is a term that connotes two phenomena: one is the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity and the second is reflected in the actions that citizens of a country have when seeking to achieve self-determination. So, one has to look for these two factors if in order to determine the presence of nationalism in a person or in the members of a nation.

Let us take the definition of these two factors for a better understanding. National identity is the depiction of a country as a whole, encompassing its culture, traditions, language, and politics. On the other hand, self-determination is defined as the process by which a group of people, usually possessing a certain degree of national consciousness, form their own state and chooses their own government. As a political principle, the idea of self-determination evolved at first as a by-product of the doctrine of nationalism.

Thailand has built up its principle of nationalism different than in most other Asian countries. But what could be the reasons behind its people’s strong nationalism? Is it simply from the fact that they were not occupied by Europeans in the past unlike their neighboring countries? Or perhaps, looking at a different perspective, it is due to their rich cultural heritage and effective rulers?

The Effect of Colonization to Nationalism

The colonization of many Asian countries during the past has resulted in its mix of culture. On common occasions, the culture of the colonizer dominated the one that the subjugated nation used to have. This overlapping of cultures has resulted to either the original one’s complete loss, or it simply becoming a sub-culture. Take for example the country of the Republic of the Philippines, which is among the neighbors of Thailand in Asia.

The Philippines was colonized by various superpowers in various periods, namely the Europeans and Americans. It was initially taken over by Spain who introduced Christianity in its various regions. Then the Americans arrived, who westernized many of its ways through its introduction of the American – based system of education. Both these strategies worked in imbuing their cultures and traditions to the Filipinos. To date, the Philippines has around four-fifths of its population who are practicing Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, the traces of the American-based system of education are still very evident today. The English medium of instruction in schools, has also catapulted this country as the third largest English-speaking country in the world.

Basing from the experience of the Philippines, colonization can really affect the factors that make up nationalism. Its culture now has strong traces of Roman Catholicism, while the English language appears to be more preferred in schools due to its status as one of the international languages.

In the case of Thailand, it was never colonized by Europeans even during the Colonial Era. So, somehow, the undisturbed rule of its people and their preservation of their way of life contributed to their strong nationalism, which is unlike its neighboring countries that underwent a series of transitions in culture due to colonization such as the Philippines. The lack of widespread of foreign practices and foreign languages also help in the preservation of its own.

The way that nationalism was imbued in Thailand is very much different from its Asian counterparts. Let us take for example the Philippines again where nationalism was sparked by the injustices and unequal treatment of the ruling Spaniards to the Filipino people. People like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Juan Luna, and other national heroes rose to the occasion. They were able to help the people regain their sense of pride and nationalism through literature and other publications exposing the misdeeds of the colonizers.

Based from this example of the Philippines, loss or gain of nationalism can either be a result of colonization. The loss of its factors can be caused by the total acceptance of a colonized territory of the ways of its foreign occupants. On the other hand, oppression or inequalities can be a fuse that could spark the flame to renew it. Lacquer pointed out that nationalism in colonized Asian countries like the Philippines, India, China, Japan, and the rest, came as a result being subdued by foreign powers and for the need of independence. Self-determination as discussed in the earlier part of this write-up is the need to be independent, for the people to decide for their own government. Thus, this supports the idea that nationalism can sprout also due to colonization.

In the case of Thailand, its nationalism was a by-product of its need for self-preservation or its need to protect its common people’s interests during the Colonial Era. The only struggle is within its system, wherein it saw a series of regime changes from the 12th century up to the overthrowing of the system of monarchy, and the monarchy’s eventual preservation.

Thailand may not have been directly colonized, but its European contemporaries during the Colonial Era have maintained control over the external affairs of this country. Hence, this makes it indirectly under the power of the powerful nations controlling their trade and other external privileges. Even though this may have threatened and subjugated them in terms of their management of external affairs, it did not affect them in terms of their nationalism because of the strong hold and effective policies of their rulers during that time.

The Effect of the Rich Cultural Heritage of Thailand to Nationalism

This country has been inhabited by people during prehistoric times, probably around the Palaeolithic era, about 20,000 years ago. The oldest materials, which were unearthed by archaeologists in the Korat Plateau of the country, dates back from 3,000 B.C to around 4,000 B.C. Then, the first documentation of the existence of the Tai, the people of Thailand, dates back to the 12th century A.D. It is written in the Khmer temple complex of the famous ancient site called the Angkor Watt. They were referred there as Syam or “the dark brown people”, and later on, this evolved into the modern term, “Siam”.

History is important in molding nationalism to the citizens of a country. The colorful past of Thailand, having been in existence as a society since time immemorial, makes its citizens truly proud to be where they are right now. It is further strengthened by the presence of available historical data and structures that reflect the grandeur of their land in the past. Even King Rama VI saw the importance of this during his rule in order to establish a national identity, which we will tackle on the next section of this document.

The Contributions of King Rama VI in Instilling the Sense of Nationalism to the People

When one talks of the Thais’ utter sense of nationalism, one cannot dismiss the contributions made by King Vajiravudh or King Rama VI. This is because he was able to instill nationalism not only in the way that the common Thais act or speak, but he was able to build their nationalism in a spiritual sense. When King Rama VI assumed his position, he understood that national unity cannot be achieved just by uniting the ruling parties of the nation as his father believed it to be. From his point of view, this can only be achieved when people share a common physical and spiritual interests as well as aspirations. So, he devised a way to unite the common people in order to bind the people in spirit. For him, a cohesive spirit shared by the commoners was the only way to achieve modernization and to protect the country’s interests.

King Rama VI started his plan to build the peoples’ spirit of nationalism by looking at the rich heritage of his country. According to him, letting the people appreciate the wealthy heritage of their nation will impart the feeling of pride and belongingness.

However, the road to achieving Rama VI’s vision was a long one. It was met with a backlash from his own military due to its ineffectiveness at first (Schrichandra and Poonvivatana). Alarmed by this event, Rama VI included nationalism in his policy, to maintain control of his countrymen especially his military corps. This made the people adopt it in a forcible way. Then later on, he managed to release a lot of literary works aimed for the masses in order to enhance their knowledge about their Thai heritage which is a source of pride and nationalism.


Thailand, being a country not colonized by Europeans may have contributed to their strong sense of pride and nationalism. This is because it never disrupted their way of exercising their cultures and traditions, which effectively preserved their national identity.

Other Asian countries only recognized their need for a national identity and self-determination during times of oppression by their colonizers. But in the case of Thailand, the internal struggles in its system due to the needs of the masses became a reason to spark nationalism.

The thousand year old historical pride of the Thai’s plus its available ancient structures also contributed to their strong sense of nationalism because of its effect in establishing the people’s national identity. Without extensively knowing their identity, nationalism cannot be instilled as what Rama VI believed.

Lastly, the strong love of the Thais for their country can be attributed to the efforts of its rulers to strengthen it through effective policies, modernization, literature, and sometimes, using military force. The most notable ruler who has exercised all his power to spark nationalism to the people is King Vajiravudh or King Rama VI. Although his ways may not have been able to meet a hundred percent acceptance from everyone, it surely produced a significant result. So up to now, when one thinks of the strong nationalism of this country, it is hard not to think about him. His words still resonate on the popular slogans and literature about nationalism up to the present day.
Source by Giancarlo C. Perlas