Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Thai – Phonlamuang | rasadorn | prachachon

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Community, Thai

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Phonlamuang | rasadorn | prachachon

Relates to ‘The [Thai] People’

There are various terms in Thai that refer to the ‘people of Thailand’. Each term is differentiated to reflect social hierarchy as well as the group’s degree of political awareness and participation in Thai society. There are three key terms: phonlamuang, rasadorn and prachachon. Each refers to the people, the citizenry (or subjects), the population, and the terminology is problematic in interesting ways.  To some extent these words are used interchangeably but they are all, at least to sensitive ears, wedded to different underlying meanings. Each stands in contrast to Thailand’s royal elite (the phu dee) who have continued to remain in a privileged position since the 1932 abolition of the absolute monarchy. In particular, the king and royal family can be counted as phonlamuang but not as rasadorn.

In various ways, each of these words reflects a certain stage in the relationship between the governed and the government. Prior to the 1932 revolution, Mr Pridi Phanomyong, a leader of the People’s Party, used the terms phonlamuang and rasadorn when referring to ‘social inequality’ among ‘the royalty’ and ‘people’ in the Thai society. Since then there has been an ongoing debate about the appropriateness of various terms for describing the ‘Thai people’. For Charnvit Kasetsiri, a prominent Thai historian, the term phonlamuang emphasises ‘duties’ rather than ‘rights’. In Charnvit’s opinion, the word rasadorn as utilised by Pridi Phanomyong, not only reflects the Westernised ideology of the revolution, but it also reinforces social stratification. It focuses on the consciousness of rights more than duties/responsibilities. The word rasadorn is a term that reflects modern political thought and ideas of democracy from the perspective of the ‘people’ who claim to ‘possess the right to participate in government’. It is used today to describe ‘Members of Parliament’ (phuthaen rasadorn). It is a bounded term that refers to the ways that people are members of particular towns or cities.

Today the most common way of referring to ‘the people’ (of Thailand) is to invoke the word prachachon.  In the standard instructions provided after a coup, military leaders will address themselves to ‘pi nong prachachon tee rak tang lai’ (all our lovely brother and sister people).  The king habitually refers to ‘prachachon chaw thai’ (the Thai people). These statements link, neatly, to the idea of prachatipatai (democracy) that is the foundation for much contemporary Thai political discussion. In 2008 Thailand saw a confrontation between the Phak Phalang Prachachon (People Power Party) and the Pantamit Prachachon Peua Prachatipatai (People’s Alliance for Democracy).  Both sought to stake out explicitly representational positions in a wide-ranging debate about the value of democracy. Claims to represent ‘the people’ are central to Thailand’s ongoing political conflicts.  In the 2008 case the unelected People’s Alliance for Democracy was victorious and succeeded in overthrowing the elected People Power Party government. In Thai history efforts to invoke the ‘people’ are inconsistently and ambiguously linked to efforts to have their voices heard.

More recently another word has come into new use to refer to ‘the people’ of lower socio-economic status. During the turbulent years from 2008-2010 many opponents of the establishment began to refer to themselves as ‘phrai’ (serf) in a way that inverted and pilloried an old pejorative term. Such phrai stand in stark contrast to the elite who continue to wield such political and economic power.





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