“They’re so Lao”: Explaining the Thai sense of superiority

Photo: Mith Huang/CC BY 2.0

A Thai photographer’s Facebook post drew attention to long-standing tensions between the cultures of his nation and neighbouring Lao. But is “you’re so Lao” truly an insult? It apparently is for the fiercely proud Thais.

By Oliver Ward

Thai photographer, Pongsaton Gitprachaya was photographing a motoring expo in Vientiane when he casually commented  “Damn, they´re so Lao” on his Facebook page. The comment was intended to point out the, in his view, inferior nature of the work on display but the comment was picked up by the national media and he had to flee across the border. Despite his apologies Lao netizens exploded with anger and the damage was done.

Behind this story is the strong belief among Thai professionals that their work is far superior to anything produced by their neighbours.  But when you look deeper, the use of the term “Lao” as an insult is offensive not only to Laotians but also to swathes of the northeastern Thai population who share Lao roots.

One people, divided

Divided by the mighty Mekong river, the people in both nations share linguistic and cultural similarities. In fact, the Lao kingdom of Lan Xeng included all of northeastern Thailand as recently as the early 18th century.  

As a result, the people of the northeastern Isaan region, in particular, share strong Lao roots. This is because even after the fall of the Lan Xeng kingdom and during the following Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods, Isaan was incorporated into the territory of Siam but retained their strong Lao cultural connection. Linguistically they speak Isan, a Lao dialect used by a third of the population of Thailand.

And the connections between the two nations run much deeper than appearances. Shared cuisine, language, fashion and culture transcend the Mekong, meaning any belief in the superiority of “Thainess” fails to grasp the extent to which the two nations were a united Kingdom until fairly recent history. To be fair, the feeling of Thai superiority is not present amongst the whole nation, but certainly, the population of central and southern Thailand look to their northern borders with contempt.

Some of the most public examples of this are cases where the Thai entertainment industry has been responsible for offending Laotians. Several years ago, Thai singer Uthen Prommin caused a stir with public insults while the film Mak Te (Lucky Losers), tells the tale of a football cup where the Thai and Lao national teams face each other in the final. It was widely criticised for depicting Lao’s players as country farmers who were utterly incapable of organising a national team until they hired a Thai as a manager. It was never released.

Where does it come from?

Thamrongsak Petchlertanan, an expert on Thai history at the Rangsit University, believes that the idea of Thai superiority is rooted in almost a century of nationalist education in Thai schools. Anti-communist ideology after the 1950´s bolstered the idea of “Thainess” and the idea of Thai conquest and dominance over the region. As part of this narrative, the destruction of Vientiane by the Siamese army in 1778 has been told with enthusiasm to generations of Thai children.

In the wider picture, Lao has limped behind Thailand economically since the Cold War due in part to the economic restrictions imposed on the country. Much of the economic assistance received by the Lao government since has come from Thai pockets, contributing to increased Thai zealotry. However, this understanding conveniently ignores the fact that Laos’ economy is currently growing faster than that of its Thai neighbour.  

The widespread religious belief in karma also plays a role in spawning a sense of Thai superiority. Many Thais feel their neighbouring countries have seen less development as they have procured less karma and goodwill, perpetuating ideas that Laotians or Cambodians are villains that lack moral integrity.

The final plank in the Thai mindset is the history of border skirmishes between the two nations, the most significant of which in December 1987 ignited the Thai-Laotian war. The dispute was over national boundaries and ownership of four small villages. The first blow was landed by the Thai army which moved in and raised their flag,  prompting Lao forces to fight back under cover of darkness and reclaim the village as their own. The fighting went on for some weeks until a ceasefire was declared in February of 1988.

Solving the problem of Thai superiority

Solving the problem between these two brothers in culture and ASEAN will not be a simple task. While politician and educators retain the view of Thai superiority it will never be as easy as changing the syllabus of new diplomatic deals. A complete overhaul of social perceptions would need to occur first. This is especially true for the feeling of superiority over their Cambodian neighbours, as the Thai government has strategically fueled anti-Cambodian sentiment in the past to help strengthen their claim over the disputed land near Preah Vihear.

After joining the ASEAN economic integration agreement, Thai relations with their neighbours are more important than ever as closer economic ties have brought more people from Thailand´s neighbouring countries in to both work and visit the country. Subjecting these people to a bigoted belief of their inferiority will only cause tensions and undermine the modernising process which has made Thailand a good place for foreign nationals to do business.

The Laotians themselves have their own way of fighting back.  On their streets you hear another expression that cuts to the bone, “don’t be Thai to me”. It’s a sense of superiority that has never really been earned.