Nationalism and genetics: Thai obsession with race

History I am sure, does not repeat itself, but some Thai scholars have a history of repeating themselves. Two articles published in the Bangkok Post recently reveal their obsession with the idea of a “Thai race”.

The first article is titled “Bones tell story of Thai origin” (Bangkok Post 5/11/06). In short, it explains that the scholars of the Fine Arts Department have deduced the ethnic identity of several thousand year old skeletons. DNA tests on these skeletons and on different tai-speaking populations currently living in China and Thailand show very similar results. They allow the researcher to say that Thai people have been settled in what is today Thailand for much longer than previously thought. This research then obviously backs up a nationalist rewriting of early Southeast Asia. Did these skeletons belong to people who named themselves thai, who shared the same rituals, the same social organization, who speak the same language as the Thai today? These questions are not raised, of course… They would undermine the pathetic but nonetheless worrying efforts of these Thai academics to give to the concept of a “Thai race” a genetic justification as well as an historical depth which social sciences are unable (and for good reasons!) to provide them with.

The second article, published a few days ago (Bangkok Post 13/12/06), concerns more specifically medical sciences. It proclaims that “Gene sequence of Thai has been identified” by a research team from Chulalongkorn and Mahidol Universities and that this discovery will allow the scientists to adjust the creation of new medicines to the Thai DNA for greater efficiency. The research was based on a collection and analysis of blood samples among people living in the same area for at least three generations. But if a “true Thai” is someone living in the same place as his grand parents, then many Karen or Lawa villagers (or Chinese descendants) are more Thai than many thai-speaking urban dwellers! This could be good news for the rights of the so-called “ethnic people” of Thailand but indeed the main idea underlying this research is (once again) the quest and the promotion of a “pure” Thai genotype. Interestingly, the research has eventually shown close affinities with Chinese and Japanese DNA – which represent the “noble white Asian stock” – while nothing is said about Lao or Khmer DNA…

Such an obsession for a “pure and old Thai race” is not new, nor is it isolated. It comes along with other obsessions, such as pride of the national flag. Eventually this produces a conceptual framework which reminds me, relatively speaking, of European racist and evolutionist theories at the end of the nineteen century.

Olivier Evrard, Anthropologist, IRD-Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University

About Olivier Evrard, Guest Contributor