New study digs deep to shatter myths about Isaan


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 Thailand’s urban middle class.

A new study by the Asia Foundation sets 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.

Based in the US with offices in 18 countries, the Asia Foundation focuses on research and engagement with government, civil society, and the private sector in each of its host countries–though in the past the organization has been associated with the CIA’s cold war effort in Asia.

The Isaan Record spoke to Rattana Lao, a senior program officer for policy and research at the foundation’s Thailand office, and Thomas Parks, the foundation’s country representative, about some of the key findings of this study.

IR: What is the Asia Foundation about?

Thomas Parks (TP): Our focus is development, foreign policy, and governance. We do a lot of research and engage directly with government, civil society, and the private sector.

Generally, we try to find the most critical questions and the most critical challenges in each country, and do what we can to work with different actors in the country to bring them together to address problems.

IR: What are the aims of this study?

TP: Firstly to inform policy, and secondly to improve understanding of those outside of Isaan about the challenges that exist in the region.

Inequality and particularly the regional disparities are major domestic challenges for Thailand. But the topic often gets politicized because of the particular dynamics of political parties and the history of the last two decades. In many ways, that has held the country back from being able to address legitimate challenges in the lagging regions.

We’re also trying to debunk some of the myths and assumptions about the Northeast. We have never done anything like this in the Northeast before.

We try to frame things in a way which is non-partisan, which allows people to have a conversation that gets beyond the divisions. We look at issues from the perspective–even though we are a foreign organization–of how we can help people in Thailand to address key challenges.

IR: Who do you present the findings to? Who is the intended audience?

TP: Government and civil society. We have two key objectives for this study in particular. The first is to provide government with balanced and objective information to help them think about the impact of policies. The second is to try to improve understanding of the Northeast, in particular the real-life challenges, and to do that with a combination of macro information and personal stories.

Rattana Lao (left) and Thomas Parks presented the study “Thailand’s Inequality: Myths & Reality of Isan” at the Bangkok office of the Asia Foundation on June 4.

IR: What do you expect the impact of the study to be?

TP: The ideal impact is that it stimulates policy discussion and debate that rise to a new level, or go in a new and more productive, constructive direction.

It is also important for us to acknowledge that we’re not here to push for a certain outcome. We’re not here to say “more decentralization” or “consolidate schools” etc.; we explicitly try to avoid that so that we’re not perceived as having an agenda.

CONFRONTING MYTHS

IR: 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.

For example, with the NESDC (Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council) most of the civil servants that we met were concerned with rather specialist aspects such as data construction at the regional level. They also came from the regional offices which puts them in fairly close proximity to the issues that we are talking about.

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.

IR: Are there any Isaan people in your research team? How did they feel about the myth busting?

RL: There were two Isaan people in the team for whom the study was a kind of internal refresh for their own perceptions about Isaan. They are highly educated women, very empowered, very “new generation.” When we put them in the field to interview farmers or students in Isaan, they were confronted by their own myths about the region.

We also hired Ph.D. students from Khon Kaen University (KKU) as part-time consultants. Their job was to interview farmers for us in the local Isaan dialect and transcribe the interviews into Thai for us.

One Ph.D. student from Yasothon said that she had never felt as proud to be from Isaan as when she saw how proud the Isaan farmers were of their livelihoods. She’s a scientist, she’s always thinking about technology, always looking abroad, with a very international outlook, yet she had never looked at her roots in this way before. For all of her life she used to look down on her parents and their way of life. She wanted to distance herself from farming and all of the other ways that they lived. She had never seen anything to be proud about in being an Isaan farmer until she saw how proud, resilient, and capable the farmer she was interviewing was.

We are confronted with myths at all levels, and the theme of myth and reality emanated from the fieldwork itself. We didn’t go into this research with the idea of “let’s do myth and reality of Isaan,” we were very open minded about the perceptions of Isaan people that we would encounter.

GOVERNMENT

IR: 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.

TP: There’s more: when we asked them whether they thought the country was going in the right direction there was a slight majority who said the wrong direction (55 percent) and when we asked them why, the vast majority said it was the economy or crop prices etc. Only 5 percent said that it was the government was not responsive.

When we asked them why it was going in the right direction, they said it was because the government was doing a good job.

RL: 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.

EDUCATION

IR: 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 center 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.

IR: 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 “I might be good here and now, but if I go to Bangkok I might become a second-class citizen”, like they would just be the reserve choice. They feel inferior, in some sense, so why bother?

MIGRATION

IR: 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 study found that fewer Isaan people than in the past are migrating to other parts of Thailand. But remittances nonetheless play a crucial role for household income in the region. (Graphic by the Asia Foundation)

IR: After the presentation of this report, what’s next?

TP: We’ll probably take two directions. The first will probably be to follow up with key areas of government that are interested, engaged, and ready to work with us. The second is to go a bit more in depth.

During some of our meetings with government, there was specific interest in saying “Oh, couldn’t we take this and maybe look at the data a little bit more in depth and figure out what are specifically the issues around this policy or that policy?” or “What does this tell us about the differences between generations?” So, already the policy makers are thinking that this is a good start, but are looking at how they can go deeper and get very specific guidance on how to change policy.

It looks like we’re going to have some kind of a refresh, or a new phase of government soon, and I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure and interest in the technocratic parts of government to come up with new ideas [on what to do about] regional disparities. It’s a good moment.

Cover photo by Tim Bewer