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Posts from the ‘Op-Ed’ Category

GUEST EDITORIAL: What Mushrooms Tell Us About Isaan’s Ecological Future

2015 December 7

What do mushrooms and Isaan people have in common? They both flourish in difficult places, and are resilient enough to make those places home. Both have been affected by changes in recent decades that were as much economic as ecological: exploitation of labor and forest lands, migration of working people and the disappearance of mushroom habitats.

By Peera Songkünnatham


Freshly picked het ko which belong to the diverse fungi family of russulaceae, with over 1,900 known species worldwide.

One thing has remained constant, though – Isaan people’s love for picking edible wild mushrooms. This article is a celebration of the joys of picking mushrooms, but also a warning, as the places one found mushrooms before might no longer be there.

Isaan was where I first learned to pick mushrooms, last year during my ethnographic fieldwork. Somewhere in Khueang Nai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, some way in from a two-lane asphalt road beyond a temple and some rice paddies and rubber fields, stood a eucalyptus forest. Tall, equally spaced, in orderly rows, left and right.

On one side, a sign read “Forest Industry Organization | 1983 Plot,” and on the other “1984 Plot.” A monopolistic state enterprise, the Forest Industry Organization started introducing eucalyptus plantations in 1975 to rehabilitate national reserve forestlands as well as to accommodate fast-growing demands for fuel wood. In effect, plantations like this one were saved from being cleared, yet at the same time they were slated for logging for state revenue. Thirty years of monopoly, however, did enable thirty years of flourishing of forest undergrowth.

At first glance, you wouldn’t expect a bounty of edible mushrooms in a eucalyptus forest. How could they grow on land devoted to a single species? Yet, there they were – in groups or alone, by termite hills, hidden under a bush or dry leaves, or barely above ground. I would learn to appreciate mushrooms in all their distinct varieties – some aromatic, some more phallic than others, mushrooms of all the tints of the rainbow plus white, grey, and black. There were even het phoeng yu-ka, bitter and crunchy purple mushrooms growing on eucalyptus bark.

We were there as casual pickers, our end goal was to cook a big spicy pot of mushrooms that day to share with our families. It was like an adventure game with our team as tutorial, our eyes as skill, our shovel as equipment, our long sleeves and pants as armor, and a lot of luck as a fun variable.

Het ra-ngok sell for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market.

We were not “professional” mushroom pickers who go in the wee hours hunting for mushrooms in specific spots, walking for hours on end with only brief pauses for rest. By the time we went there, the professionals were already sitting under thatched stands by the main road, showcasing their pricey picks. Het pluak – whose long roots grow from termite hills – were the most coveted, some years fetching 300 baht per kilo. Then there were het ra-ngok, their white shells and orange tips glistening like salted egg. These sold for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market, but half that price or less by the roadside. The friend who took me there estimated that the monetary value of the mushrooms from this forest alone – less than 200 rai –  is about one million baht per year.

Several decades ago, forests stood right next to many villages in Isaan and villagers relied on the forest for food. Whenever they went in the forests surrounding their village, they would come out with baskets so full of mushrooms that they didn’t care when they spilled.

Once home, a couple of elderly villagers would sit and look at the pick and hold them up one by one, shaking their head and throwing away suspicious ones, keeping only those they knew were edible and tasty. Few kinds were “trusted” back then – a large majority was tossed out to rot.

Not so anymore – those forests virtually no longer exist. During the 1980s, many of the remaining forests in Isaan were declared degraded and villagers could then legally clear the land for crops and obtain land titles.

As the region’s population leaped from 6.8 million in 1952 to 12 million in 1970, and to 19 million in 1989, forests were cleared for farming. Northeastern Thailand’s sprawling forests covered 102,667 square kilometers in 1952, but by 1973 the number was halved, and almost halved again by 1982. All this time, despite the deforestation, there was less land to farm per person: the ratio decreased from 1.88 rai per person in 1952 to 1.57 in 1989.

What this decrease in number does not account for is the fact that most Isaan people by then had turned to seasonal labor, often in faraway places, or started up small businesses, sometimes replacing their rice agriculture.

With forests cleared, mushrooms still thrived on the edges of irrigated rows of crops and in the extant forests preserved by monks. Due to the scarcity of forestlands, more people flocked to the remaining forests farther away, ultimately leading to increased local knowledge of mushrooms and local competition in these areas.

The morning we went mushroom picking, we had arrived about 6 a.m. – later than many other groups. Villagers within an hour‘s radius in all directions came here, with license plates from Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, Yasothon, and Amnat Charoen provinces.

Sometimes we walked for ten minutes without spotting anything but poisonous mushrooms. Once I came upon a big red mushroom, so big it was falling apart. But my friend’s uncle told me it was already too old I should leave it on the soil so it could spread again.


The author’s first pick of the morning.

After a couple of hours, we returned to the pickup truck. The most popular question was “man bo? (were you lucky?).” It was a little like discussing the lottery. We showed one another our picks, ate some pork floss sandwiches, and prepared to return home.

This was in mid-2014. When mushroom season came again in 2015, I returned to the forest only to find all the eucalyptus trees logged, felled to feed a burgeoning industry. Minor branches were discarded where they were cut, blocking most walking paths. Only a small portion of the forest was left intact. Most mushroom pickers have now gone elsewhere.

What lies ahead? This uprooted eucalyptus forest will probably be overtaken by nearby villagers in order to cultivate cash crops. But things may turn out differently. A growing number of Thais embrace the cause of forest conservation. Many times, however, conservation is framed as a struggle between non-human nature and (urban) human greed, a frame which excludes foraging and other indigenous uses of forests. If picking mushrooms becomes a “cool” hobby like it has in the U.S., how would young Thais’ imagination of forest conservation be reconfigured? I hope that young conservationists cultivate a nuanced kind of understanding of forests, one where humans are neither greedy encroachers or scrupulous conservers.

Foragers’ relationship to forests will still remain strong. Picking mushrooms is still very much associated with the traditional, rural way of life in Thailand. This year, Matichon Online reported on luk thung star Pai Pongsathorn’s mushroom picking trip with his mother, indicating a loyalty to his cultural origins.

This sense of rootedness is not only good for nostalgia, but also food for imagining a future. Conservationists, for example, could translate their cause in ways that resonates with this sense of rootedness in order to develop better demands of environmental protection policy.

Maybe one of the traits Isaan people possess that mushrooms lack could help us both flourish, and that is memory. Villagers told me that many ecological resources might soon become things of the past: tasty marsh-dependent bullfrogs, lowland buffers for seasonal floods, precious hardwood now being stolen overnight to meet Chinese demand.

But there is hope. Villagers I met have made local agreements to not disturb the village’s san pu ta (ancestral shrine) forest area, and to not smoke out one particular kind of wasp nest, for example. Memory, inherent in these initiatives, forms the basis for reaching community solutions to upcoming ecological scarcity. When we realize that the places we found mushrooms before are no longer there, we may mourn. But we may also remind ourselves to make a place – or rather leave a place – for the mushrooms to flourish.

Peera Songkünnatham was born and raised in Sisaket City. After studying Anthropology and Sociology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Peera is now striking out a path as a freelance writer and translator based in their hometown.



PISA Thailand Regional Breakdown Shows Inequalities between Bangkok and Upper North with the Rest of Thailand

2014 February 21
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: John Draper

As reported previously in The Isaan Record, there are clear inequalities in Thai students’ academic achievement, and these are easily seen in official Ordinary National Educational Test (O-NET) Results by province. These results have been seen to broadly follow ethnolinguistic and class groupings, with Bangkok, home to wealthier ethnic Central Thais, noticeably outperforming other areas and ethnicities. This was visible in the fact that 15-16-year old Central Bangkok students achieved a mean score of 50.6/100% in the Thai language in 2010, compared to a mean of 39.0/100% for the median northeastern province, Mahasarakham – a difference of nearly 12%.

In an article in The Nation on December 5th, 2013, it was revealed that Thai students’ results in the Organization for Economically Developed Countries’ Programme for International Student Tests (PISA) had improved from 2009-2012. This test also looks at the achievement of Thai 15 year olds, with Thailand being one of 65 countries and economies involved.

The 2009 results were 421 in reading, 425 in science, and 419 in mathematics. The recently released 2012 results were 441 in reading, 444 in science, and 427 in mathematics. However, Dr. Sunee Klainin, the manager of the PISA Thailand Project, attributed the higher scores to the performance of demonstration schools and the Princess Chulabhorn’s College schools. She also pointed out that half of Thai students tested did not achieve a Band 3 or higher in mathematics, while around a third did not achieve a Band 3 in science or reading.

What do these scores mean? The definitions of the PISA levels for reading and mathematics are available here. There are six bands for mathematics. Students testing in Band 3 or lower – half of Thai students aged 15 – means they have little problem-solving ability in mathematics.

Likewise, in reading, a third of Thai students aged 15 are not able to relate a text to everyday knowledge and find and link multiple parts of a text.

What about the regional breakdown for Thailand? To date, this has not been included in the PISA 2012 regional data sheet (available here), which lists regional breakdowns for 14 of the PISA countries and economies. In fact, the regional breakdown for Thailand has never been publicly reported in the media. However, a regional breakdown was reported in a technical document published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the ASEAN Secretariat in late 2013.[i] (Also available from a web link on the OECD Centre for Development website, here).


Figure: PISA scores in Thailand, by subject and region
















Upper North






Lower North






Upper Northeast






Lower Northeast












National Average





Source: The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology (IPST).

Note: PISA scale was set such that approximately two-thirds of students across OECD countries score between 400 and 600 points. Gaps of 72, 62 and 75 points in reading, mathematics, and science scores, respectively, are equivalent to one proficiency level.


In math, the average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North, where Chiang Mai has been an academic powerhouse for some time. The Upper Northeast fares slightly better than the Lower Northeast likely because it includes the major urban centers of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Interestingly, the average Central region student also scores very low compared to the average Bangkok student, and this may be because of differences in the quality of the schools. One possible explanation for the much lower average score for a student in the South is because it includes the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani.

In science, there is a similar pattern. The average Bangkok student scores half a PISA level higher than almost every other regionally-based student except in the Upper North and the Upper Northeast, with the Upper Northeast still well behind Bangkok.

Can we correlate the statistics with ethnic identity? It certainly looks like the scores of the Northeast Thailand students can be correlated with the Thai Lao ethnolinguistic identity. In the Lower Northeast, where there are a million ethnic Khmers, the scores are lower, but without a detailed understanding of which provinces are included, it is difficult to say. What is interesting is that the average student from the Central Thai ethnolinguistic identity also scores low outside Bangkok.

One of the standard explanations for these differing scores is poverty. Poverty is certainly a factor in tertiary enrollment in Thailand.[ii] While poverty is also a factor in PISA achievement, the 2012 PISA figures note that the socio-economic background (class) of Thai students has an impact on both performance and the performance gap that is actually better than the OECD averages. Another issue then may be the inequality of access to resources, especially in more rural areas populated by ethnic minorities.

In response to the poor Thai PISA 2012 results, Professor Gerald Fry made five recommendations in an article in The Nation of December 23, 2013. He suggests additional factors in the low scores may be a lack of equity in resource allocation, an emphasis on quantity (buildings and personnel) rather than the quality of people, the lack of a strong reading culture, and a lack of expenditure on Research and Development. He also notes there is the possibility that students may be scoring low because their first language is not Thai. In other words, they may simply not understand the written instructions or how to write the short analyses in Thai required by the PISA tests.

Overall, the Thailand regional breakdown and the country PISA scores make for tragic results. Thailand is a whole PISA level behind the OECD averages of 494 for mathematics, 496 for reading and 501 for science. As also pointed out by Professor Fry in his article, it is also behind Vietnam, a newcomer to the PISA tests and a developing country compared to Thailand’s status as a newly industrialized country.

The gap in PISA levels is the difference between 15-year-old Thai children being able to solve problems or not. And, for the first time we can see from the PISA statistics themselves where those differences are geographically. They are the same kind of differences that can be seen in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey results from 2011 for Thai Primary 4 and Thai Secondary 2 students’ scores, as reported in The Nation on December 12, 2012.

There is an urgent need for a public discussion of these regional figures and what they mean for the future of the Thai education system. This public discussion should be constant and sustained until the scores of the children of the Northeast – and those of the other regions stricken by poor results – can equal the scores of the children of Bangkok.


About the Author: John Draper is currently a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University and is assigned to the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme (ICMRP; see and


[i] OECD. (2013). Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013: With Perspectives on China and India. Available at

[ii] Ibid., p. 207.

OP-ED: Thai Migrant Workers’ Return to Libya is Premature

2012 March 21
by The Isaan Record

In early February, Department of Employment (DOE) director Prawit Kiengphon authorized the return of Thai workers to Libya. More than 10,000 Thai refinery and construction workers were evacuated from the North African nation in March 2011 after an uprising broke out which resulted in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. As thousands of Thais are mobilized for employment in Libya, it is time to consider whether the state’s labor export program sufficiently represents the interests of Thai transnational migrant workers. Is it truly safe for Thais to be deployed to Libya? And should the state be doing more to protect the financial interests of its migrant citizens?

Profits come with mortal risks

The Thai state has been promoting the overseas employment of Thais, most of whom are drawn from the country’s poorest and least developed Northeastern region, for more than three and a half decades.  It competes with more than a dozen Southeast and South Asian states for lucrative employment positions in overseas labor markets.

In January 2012, Sri Lanka permitted its migrant citizens to return to Libya.  In response, Mr. Prawit asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to hastily verify that conditions in Libya are safe before Thai jobs were lost to Sri Lankan workers. In his February announcement, Mr. Prawit made no reference to Sri Lanka. Instead, he simply stated that the Thai Embassy in Libya had determined that conditions had returned to a state of normalcy.

However, the DOE’s responsibility for verifying the safety of destination countries is potentially comprised by its duty to promote overseas labor migration.  A new Ministry of Labor policy charges the DOE with increasing the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% in 2012 to a total of 600,000 workers.  This goal would be farther from reach if the Libyan labor market was lost.  Prior to last year’s uprising, Libya ranked as the sixth most common destination of the more than four dozen countries which receive Thai labor.

A recent Amnesty International report which depicted Libya as a troubled nation where “lawlessness” prevails stands in stark contrast to the Thai Embassy’s assessment of normalcy. The report details the continued existence of “hundreds of large militias” that are “largely out of control… their actions threatening to destabilize Libya”.  In addition, it documents how “frequent armed clashes between different militia groups” have resulted in the death and injuries of “uninvolved bystanders”.

It is not only Amnesty’s report that casts doubt on the stability of the situation in Libya.  The DOE’s new regulations which apply to Thai employment agencies supplying Libyan employers indicate that the DOE is concerned that Thai migrants may be affected by future unrest.  Now, employment agencies must ensure that migrants sent to Libya are protected with life insurance policies.  In addition, agencies must submit evacuation plans and written assurances that they will shoulder the costs of any future evacuations.

The new regulations ensure that the Thai government will not have to foot the bill for a costly evacuation as it did following the 2011 uprising. Yet while the regulations mitigate the financial risks that the Thai state incurs in the export of labor to Libya, they do nothing to lessen the financial risks assumed by Thai migrants.  As became apparent when Thai workers returned unexpectedly from Libya last year, these risks for migrants are substantial.

Paying the price for labor export  

Unfortunately, employment agencies generally charge Thai job-seekers under the table service fees in excess of the government stipulated limit.  According to Mr. Daeng Phiwdam, an Udon Thani native who has worked in Libya for most of the past fifteen years, first-time migrants to Libya are charged approximately 90,000 baht in agency fees which they typically pay with money borrowed at high interest rates.  Mr. Daeng estimates that it takes one and a half to two years for most migrants to recover their agency fees with their 10,000 baht per month Libyan salaries.

When migrants are forced to return home prematurely, they often come home saddled with debts that are difficult to recover in the domestic labor market. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, only 40 of nearly 10,000 Thai workers in Libya chose not to return home when the uprising broke out in February 2011. However, Mr. Daeng explained that the prospect of returning without money to pay an agency debt is often more daunting than that of remaining in a war-ravaged country. “If you stay you die, if you go home you also die because you are in debt and there is no way of recovering it,” said Mr. Daeng.

A second problem resulting from last year’s evacuation is that many migrants returned to Thailand with outstanding salary claims.  Given that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Libya to be paid once every three months, the amounts owed to many migrants were not insignificant.  According to DOE statistics, nearly one year after the workers returned, roughly a quarter still have unresolved salary issues with their Libyan employers.

Returned migrants, especially those with outstanding employment agency debt, are likely anxious to resume work in Libya.  Now the DOE has given them the green light to take up residence in the still-troubled African nation.  The DOE has implemented measures to reduce the financial burden that it will incur in the event of future unrest in Libya.  It should also do the same for migrants.  The DOE should implement regulations which require employment agencies to refund most of workers’ agency fees if they are prematurely returned to Thailand through no fault of their own.  In addition, the DOE should more aggressively pursue salary claims on behalf of Thai migrant workers.  It should also consider implementing regulations which require Libyan employers to pay Thai migrants on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis.  Finally, it is high time for the Thai state to reconsider whether its labor export program is truly in the best interests of its citizens. When unemployment is less than one percent domestically, why is the Thai state concerned about losing employment positions in a war-ravaged nation?  The DOE’s efforts would be better directed toward creating more highly remunerative employment positions at home.

OP-ED: Solving Isaan’s Education Problem

2011 December 12
by The Isaan Record

Guest Contributor: John Draper

In 2011, the 2010 Ordinary National Education Test (O-NET) results by province were made available to the public for only the second time in the history of this standardized nationwide test, and students in Northeast Thailand achieved terrible results.  This article considers the reasons for these poor academic results, focusing on the subjects of Thai, the de facto national language of Thailand, and English, the main foreign language of Thailand (described as such because neither are included in the constitution). Isaan students are being left behind not only because of a lack of resources or because of malnutrition leading to stunted growth, but because they’re learning in the wrong language.

All four data sets mentioned in this article can be found here.

The statistics are quite clear, and for Isaan parents and educators, extremely worrying. For the Thai language, in 2005, the highest placed Isaan province, Udon Thani, was placed 46 out of 76 provinces, and the lowest ranked Isaan province was Kalasin, ranked 73, with only the war-torn provinces of Yala, Narathiwas and Pattani (in that order) below it. The median score was Loei, ranked 62. Just four years later, in 2010, following at least 300 million baht of teacher training directed by the Ministry of Education, with much of it in the Northeast, the highest placed Isaan province was once again Udon Thani. It placed 43 out of 76 provinces – an improvement of just three spots – and the lowest ranked Isaan province was again Kalasin, which saw no improvement at all and ranked 73. The median score was Maha Sarakham, ranked 61. In plain English, what this means is that rural Isaan students graduating from secondary school tend to have difficulties reading the front page of a Thai newspaper.

Turning to English, a principal gateway language and a prerequisite for entering prestige professional career paths such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and engineering, the situation is, in fact, worse. For example, in 2006, the highest placed Isaan province, Udon Thani, was ranked 36th out of 76 provinces, and for 2010, the highest ranked Isaan province, once again Udon Thani, placed 35 out of 76 provinces. In other words, Isaan students exist in an even more extreme two-tier education system as regards English, and again, little has changed in five years.

Thus, two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, as a region, excluding the Deep South, which has periodically suffered the closure of anything from dozens to thousands of schools due to intense violence against both schools and teachers, median ranking illustrates Isaan has the worst education system as regards teaching both the de facto national language and English. Secondly, this position has not changed significantly in the last five years despite the expenditure of hundreds of millions of baht on teacher training.

Generally speaking, three potential reasons for this phenomenon have appeared in Thailand’s newspapers: 1) Isaan (mainly Lao) people are stupid (though to their credit, most newspapers merely report but do not take this stance); Isaan children suffer from malnutrition, generally acknowledged to be 10% in children under five according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in a 2003 report; and Isaan children suffer from an apparently ‘broken’ education system, perhaps due to a lack of resources or poorly trained teachers.

Addressing the issue of intelligence, a Nation article in July 2011 noted, “By region, students in the Northeast had the lowest average [IQ] scores, with 95.99…Students in Bangkok averaged 104.5.” One danger would be to correlate this low intelligence with poor academic performance and leave it at that. Indeed, this was the mistake of the British Establishment as regards ‘lower races’: the British Establishment in India was out-witted by a relatively small coterie of London-trained Indian lawyers into giving up India at least a generation until they were prepared to do so. In the United States, one self-educated African-American versed in Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thoreau sought and gained equality for all races a little later. To sum up, no group of people has ever been proven intrinsically more stupid than another, and so there is no reason to believe that Isaan children are stupid because of their ethnicity.

Turning to the basic issue of nutrition, malnutrition has been found to result in low IQ as well as child deaths. According to the 2009 UNDP Thailand country report, “The four provinces classified as most vulnerable with ‘significantly negative main food insecurity and nutrition outcomes’ are all in the outer Northeast (Yasothon, Nong Bua Lam Phu, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom). The next most vulnerable category includes the rest of the Northeast… In short, nutritional deficiency is a regional problem.” Another factor is large family size (5.7 vs. 4.0 national Thai average), which is a risk factor for malnutrition. Particularly in Northeastern Thailand, several growth-limiting micronutrients and low intakes of energy have been reported in children. Deficits in these micronutrients have been linked to “reduced linear growth, as well as impaired immune competence, cognition and school performance.” In other words, despite Thailand’s new status as a newly industrialized country, the poorest of the poor are having children who are either cognitively stunted (a technical term) due to their lack of a decent nutritional intake, or who die due to mild to moderate malnutrition and its accompanying baggage of infectious diseases.

A lack of “resources”, as noted by newspapers such as The Nation, whether trained human resources or equipment such as textbooks or computers, has been another principal reason for poor academic results in Isaan, and The Nation ascribes the poor performance on IQ tests to “not enough decent schools, libraries, teachers and education funding, which children in Bangkok have easy access to.” In the English as a Foreign Language setting, a lack of trained human resources and equipment has long been lamented by respected authors such as Joseph A. Foley[i]. One major problem was the lack of a regional university with specialist educational majors until the 1960’s, when Khon Kaen University (KKU) formally came into being (in 1962), evolving from the University of Northeast Thailand. At that time, teachers in Isaan were trained in a general curriculum in teachers’ colleges such as in Maha Sarakham, and they served as form teachers at both primary and secondary levels. However, KKU only began offering a specialist BA in Secondary Education in 1969, and its first Master’s degree only came in 1982.

These dates are only a decade behind the development of the Bangkok universities (with Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Education arriving in 1957), but the high number of elite public universities in Bangkok amplifies this difference. Khon Kaen University currently has an entire student body of approximately 34,000 and as the regional university is responsible, together with three smaller universities and around 19 public polytechnics-turned university, for a catchment area of 19 million people. A similar catchment area of 21 million people for Greater Bangkok and its surrounding provinces is represented by a student body of at least 100,000 when counting just the three elite public institutions of Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University and Mahidol University. In addition, dozens of private universities are also available in the Greater Bangkok area, while recent moves to delist E-sarn University in Khon Kaen due to a diploma-buying scam have thrown a severe light on the quality of education in the Northeast. A further illustration that cuts to the heart of the matter – the quality of education at Khon Kaen University – is that in 2004, I found first year Education majors at the Faculty of Education, i.e., future teachers, unable to decline basic irregular English verbs.[ii]

Having dealt (admittedly quite summarily) with the issue of resource availability in the education system, we turn to the aptly named elephant in the room – the students’ first language. Some 50% of ethnic minority Thai students are having to learn Thai as the gateway language for education before they can even get onto English as the gateway language for professional vocations. In national surveys, “Minority children with poor Standard Thai skills had 50% lower learning results than Thai speaking students in all main subjects”, and in this context, almost every one of the 19 million inhabitants of Isaan is from a minority. Furthermore, very little is being done about this state of affairs, despite UNESCO adopting the position since 1953 that the mother tongue must be the first language of education – and in Isaan, this means Lao (15,000,000 speakers), Khmer (1,400,000 speakers), and Phu Thai (470,000 speakers), and these three are just mentions of languages with populations of around 500,000 or above.

This is not to say that nothing is being done about the elephant in question – a project in the Deep South is introducing Pattani Malay (Yawi) in a dozen pilot schools. Isaan, together with Lao, is being taught in around 17 schools in Khon Kaen province, and for some time Chiang Mai University has been sporting multilingual Thai-English-Northern Thai (Kammuang) signs. However, these are tiny, broadly inconsequential efforts, despite Thailand having formally adopted a stance welcoming plurality or pahulak in its 1997 and 2007 constitutions. Regional languages must be given a place in formal education – and that means being taught in parallel with Thai in a way approved by the Ministry of Education. Musings on this issue have been heard coming from the highly respected Royal Institute, which has in theory endorsed a National Language Policy which supports a multilingualism that includes the regional and local languages. Furthermore, former Prime Minister Abhisit himself urged more support for local languages in schools in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals. And for that to happen, Thai must be endorsed as the national language in an amendment to the Thai constitution in order to assuage the quite natural Thai fear of regional separatism. The regional and local languages of Thailand must also be given a place, however, in such an amendment, in a way that sets standards, allocates roles and endorses their position in formal education.

 John Draper has been a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages at Khon Kaen University for nearly ten years. He holds a BA in Modern History from Oxford University and two MAs in Applied Linguistics from the University of Southern Queensland. He conducts research and is published in the areas of language policy and planning, multilingualism and sociolinguistics. He is also a researcher with the Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region, based at Khon Kaen University.

[i]    Foley, J. (2005). English in Thailand. RELC Journal, 36(2), 223-34.

[ii]   Draper, J. (2004, January). Acquisition of English “if” conditionals at Khon Kaen University: A diagnostic test of proficiency of 2003-2004 first year students. Paper presented at the 24th Annual Thai TESOL Conference Prioritising Teacher Development, Khon Kaen, Thailand.