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Cultural Identity and Development Process in Thailand

Wit Wisadavet

The conflict between cultural identity and development in our society does not seem to me a big problem. It can be said in general that there is no ethnic minority in Thailand. There are a considerable number of Chinese in our country but most, if not all of them, have been culturalized into the mainstream. The member minority group in Thailand is Thai Muslim, most of whom live in the South. There is very little conflict between Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims. Our country, it can be said, is quite homogeneous, and consequently cultural identity does not pose a big problem.

The pillars of Thai cultural identity are the institution of monarchy and the religion of Buddhism. The institution of monarchy has been in Thai society for more than 700 years, without any interruption. The king has been much respected, loved, and revered. In the time of crisis he is the one who would come down to solve the problem. The king is indeed the symbol of Thai identity.

As for Buddhism we have accepted it as a way of life for almost 800 years. It is a force that culturally binds the hearts and the thoughts of the Thai people together. Some of us even equate Thai-nees with Buddhism.

Buddhism is one of the most open-minded religions. According to the teaching in the Kalamasutta, a Buddhist does not accept anything merely because it is logical, said in the scripture or even taught by his teacher. Think for yourself and then try it in practice. If it is good then accept it. By its principle of no-self (anatta), it teaches us not to have a strong attachment to things. Everything is changing. There is no Being only Becoming. Do not believe in permanence or identity. This may be the reason why Thais are quite flexible and pragmatic.

We Thais are not so conscious about self-identity. Perhaps this is because we are so pragmatic or because we are so certain about our identity. We never despise foreign culture or civilization. In the older time we accepted Indian culture, such as religion, literature, language and so on. But we modify them a little and make them our own. We adapt ourselves to them and we adopt them to ourselves.

In the modern time we have introduced Western culture into our society. We believe that science, technology and other things from the West can help develop our nation. The majority of the Thai people do not have a negative attitude towards Westernization. Of course some, mostly intellectuals, do. Their criticism, it seems to me, does not receive much attention. The majority want to follow the West in the technological process and the capitalistic way of development. To many there is little or no conflict between development in such a way and cultural identity.

The problem is not the conflict between identity and development. Of course there are some who complain about this. But for the majority the problem is two-fold. Firstly the material progress is advancing so fast that it creates social problems like morality, selfishness, drug addiction and so on. Secondly, many complain that the economic development of this kind makes richer the rich and poorer the poor. What they call for is not the coming back to self-identity, but solving these two problems.

According to Buddhism, wealth in itself is not something to be despised. A man who gets rich in a morally acceptable way and is generous can be a good Buddhist. The ultimate aim of life is to live well. To live well means to have a balance between material well-being and peace of mind. But culture is not an end in itself. It is a means. Culture and everything else change all the time. This must be accepted. We have to admit, however, that culture is rooted in the heart of man and, therefore, plays a role in making life richer.

When there rises a conflict between culture and development we should take the middle way. Cultural identity is a good thing, and material well-being is also a good thing. To a certain extent we have to sacrifice the one for the other. But we should not sacrifice all of the one for the other. We must not be too romantic to think that we can keep our culture unchanged. We must not be too serious to think that material progress is the only good thing for life.


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