Persistently discounted as gullible, desperate, and unsophisticated, the 22 million inhabitants of Isaan–about a third of the country’s population–have long borne the brunt of bias from the Thailand’s urban middle class.
A new study by the Asia Foundation set out to investigate if these biases hold any water through an in-depth survey of the attitudes and opinions of Isaan people.
The study surveyed 1,400 households in six northeastern provinces between November 2017 and February 2018. Combining statistical analysis with 160 focus group and qualitative interviews, it teases out what lies behind the regional disparities both within the region and in comparison with the rest of the country.
Rattana Lao, a senior program officer for policy and researcher at the foundation’s Thailand office, and Thomas Parks, the foundation’s country representative have revealed some of the key findings of this study.
Do you encounter any myths about Isaan from the government officials that you deal with?
Rattana Lao (RL): So far we haven’t encountered any controversial myths from the people in government that we have interacted with because we usually deal with people who are very high level and quite hands-on.
I think that the myths about Isaan tend to live in the minds of the people in Bangkok, or more generally the urban middle-class, the most.
One part of the survey looks at Isaan people’s attitudes towards government and the stereotype of “unsophisticated peasants.” What did you find?
TP: We went in assuming that Isaan people would be skeptical of government, that they would have a negative view of government in general. But we couldn’t have been more wrong.
By and large, they were grateful and very positively inclined towards various government programs. We specifically kept away from mentioning or making inferences to specific parties or administrations. Government programs averaged almost 90 percent approval among the people we interviewed.
RL: They were actually very well informed ‘consumers’ when it came to government welfare. They’re very articulate and well versed about the various programs. You tell them the name of the program and they’ll tell you exactly what they get from each program, like this program gets you 2000 baht per rai, another 650 here, 300 baht there, the Blue Flag program provides this or that, etc. They’re also very articulate about their rights and what they are entitled to.
But when we asked them whether things could be better, they almost all said things like the government should improve crop prices, or make more friends internationally so we can get better crop prices and better trade deals to make the economy better, as if the government has a magic wand that can just make anything happen in an instant.
It is important to note, however, that when praising the government, they are usually talking about frontline service providers such as nurses, doctors, teachers, people who visibly and palpably provide them with services and assistance.
Another commonly held belief is that for the best education one must go to Bangkok. How did this belief fare in your study?
RL: We interviewed youth (grade 9-10) in both urban and rural areas, and 80-90 percent of the ones we interviewed wanted to remain in Isaan for university. They wanted to go to, say, Rajabhat Surin or KKU. Going to KKU is the apex of excellence for them. Their parents throw a big party if they get into KKU.
In the academic literature that I’ve seen since the 1970’s, Bangkok was the centre of the academic universe in Thailand. It was also presumed that if you’re a good student you ought to try for a scholarship to Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, or Mahidol etc. in Bangkok.
But when higher education provision expanded into the provinces, it uncovered a frame of reference among rural students that many did not expect. Given the choice, they would actually prefer to be not so far away from home, and they didn’t necessarily yearn for bright city lights. We interviewed 100 university students and they all said this.
Did it come as a surprise to you that Isaan students prefer to attend university close to home?
It shocked one of our Isaan team members. It really busted the myth that she had in her own mind about other young people in Isaan having similar aspirations to her; she’s from Surin, she’s very cosmopolitan, she won various scholarships to go to Japan since high school, she’s learning Spanish. Not that she doesn’t love “home,” she sends remittances to her family and visits home at every opportunity.
Another myth that we ended up busting was the one about how Isaan people are desperate to leave Isaan and come to Bangkok. An argument that students made was that “If I go to Bangkok I might become a second-class citizen”. They feel inferior, in some sense, so why bother?
There is a common perception that Isaan people flock to Bangkok because it is hard to make a living in Isaan. What did the findings have to say about that?
RL: Our research shows that for the past 50 years migration from Isaan to Bangkok is around 40-70 percent, depending on the studies that you look at. Our study revealed that only 25 percent have ever lived away from their homes for more than a year, and only half of those went to Bangkok; across all ages.
TP: We then went further and asked if anybody in the house had ever lived outside of the province, and 39 percent said yes. That means that 61 percent of people in Isaan have never left the region. Only 25 percent of Isaan have migrated to another place for more than one year.
This flies in the face of the myth that Isaan people have to go elsewhere to find success. But what we can’t do with this question is show a generational difference.
If we’re talking to a 25-year-old now, maybe for their parents the reality was 70 percent migration to Bangkok, but for this generation now it is much, much less. The assumption of massive migration or even the desire to migrate just doesn’t seem to hold anymore.
RL: We found this reinforced again and again when we talked to Isaan university students. They have no desire to live in a metropolis like Bangkok; for them it’s just unimaginable. This was a big surprise for us. Some of our team who came from Bangkok found it really hard to believe that no one wanted to come here!
The Isaan Record