In the past months, dozens of multilingual signs have been installed across Khon Kaen province in Northeast Thailand. Part of an innovative cultural maintenance and revitalisation project, the signs bear messages in three languages - Thai, Isaan (Thai Lao) and English. These signs include the first such municipal, route and road signs in the Northeast and hint at something the new constitution may struggle to achieve - genuine, reciprocal reconciliation involving cultural rights, including the right to self-identification as an ethnic community, also of critical importance for the Thai Malay of the Deep South.
The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP) was a four-year programme involving four Khon Kaen province municipalities, as well as the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University (KKU). Targeting Isaan, a language spoken by over 16 million Thais, it built on a previous programme at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the same university. This earlier programme installed in 2009 the first Thai-Isaan-English main faculty sign, to a 90 per cent student approval rating.
The multilingual sign at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at KKU
This was followed by the first ever Thai-Isaan-English university sign, at KKU's main gate, in late 2014.
The multilingual sign at the KKU south gate
In 2012, the ICMRP began a large-scale survey of public attitudes on multilingualism and multiculturalism in four Khon Kaen municipalities. The results revealed a population which uses Isaan the majority of the time for speaking and listening at home, in the neighbourhood and at the market - but one where the majority, especially the youth, have never seen written Isaan. This is unsurprising as Isaan was phased out of the school system a century ago, during Thailand's nation-building stage.
What was remarkable from this survey is the level of community support the Isaan language still enjoys. Khon Kaen province citizens feel that using Isaan is a way to maintain the language, makes them feel good, informs them about the language, and demonstrates both identity and variety. Community support for multilingual signage centres on the fact that it would promote preservation and learning of Isaan.
The design aspects of the signage were carefully managed. In the case of every sign, Thai, as the national language and most important to equality of opportunity in education and life choices, is higher than the other languages, and also sometimes larger. The middle language, Isaan, represents the locality and is the language most immediate to the citizens in much of the Northeast. The last language, English, represents globalisation, with its international opportunities.
Other strands of the ICMRP also concern multiculturalism. The world's first Thai-Isaan-English dictionary using Tai Noi was developed out of an Isaan-language teaching component of the project managed by Khon Kaen municipality and presented last year to Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn at the annual Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy Exhibition. Tai Noi, a Sukhothai-era script which was a precursor to both modern Laotian and modern Thai, is also the script used for the multilingual signs, chosen because it is a key heritage script for the region, together with Tua Tham (Dharma Script). In the form of palm-leaf manuscripts, these two scripts preserve the bulk of the region's local wisdom, such as epic poetry, Lao lunar cycle festivals, Buddhist jatakas, and folk tales.
HRH Princess Sirindhorn visiting the ICMRP exhibit
Further, the ICMRP also developed "ethnic" municipal and school uniforms adorned with Isaan motifs such as flowers and a local plaid design similar to Scottish tartan. These local patterns were also incorporated into a modified national Thai costume, the seua phraratchathan, blended with a Western collar to reveal local, national and international design elements. The uniforms were designed, tailored and partially manufactured by a local women's weaving group from the Ban Lah Wah wetlands community.
‘Ethnic’ Isaan school uniforms
The project found that introducing ethnic municipal uniforms is one way to de-militarise bureaucracies and make them more user-friendly for local people, through expressing solidarity. In addition, ethnic school uniforms make children happy to attend school and encourage them to feel respected by what can otherwise be a top-down educational experience, one where the majority of textbooks show little cultural diversity and few pictures of ethnic minorities.
‘Ethnic’ municipal uniforms
Another aspect of the project was the creation of a unique archive of cultural performances, one which preserves many art forms now lost or rarely performed. The archive features pieces by Khon Kaen University's Sinsai dance troupe, an international award-winning ensemble, and is available on YouTube, where it has received over one million hits. They are comprised of three genres: folk dance, music and other cultural activities. The folk dance is the largest section and is divided into the traditional forn, rueam and soeng, relating to the speed and rhythm of the accompaniment. Most performances demonstrate elements of Isaan traditional culture, such as forn yae khai mot daeng, which describes the collection of red ant eggs for food and is popular with tourists.
The KKU Sinsai dance troupe performing for the ICMRP
That municipal mayors chose to implement multilingual signs at a time of great centralisation of power is remarkable. Changing a main municipal sign to include the Isaan language is a statement in favour of Isaan identity and plurality. Yet, this does not mean that the mayors or their constituencies are necessarily "progressive". In terms of norms and values, Isaan people typically exhibit rural, conservative sentiments, such as a concern for national security. Thus, support for Isaan identity does not translate into separatism, though many Isaan people may indeed prefer elected local councils and governors. Instead, the project developed a "unity in diversity" model.
Main municipality sign
Funding for the project ended this year. Essentially a series of pilot studies, the programme provides a window into Isaan people's aspirations and sentiments regarding their own language and culture. Also importantly, the National Council for Peace and Order has tolerated the project, aspects of which, such as support for local weaving, tally with patriotic sentiments. Ultimately, the ICMRP imagines a more stable, mutually respectful future "Thainess", one in which a national language policy supports all the Kingdom's languages and identities, within a culturally inclusive unity.
New directions for Isaan?
Note: This column, first published in The Nation on September 9, 2016, has been enhanced for publication online with pictures and hyperlinks. It presents an account of the recently completed European Union co-funded Isaan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme.