A while back a friend emailed me a link to an article in The Nation, a newspaper in Thailand. The name of the article was “Signs for the Times” and the author was John Draper. The subtitle and/or theme of the article is Directions offered for cultural reconciliation. The article begins:
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,
On the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) website we located a page describing more detail about the multilingual signs. The ICMRP is a four-year 22 million baht initiative co-funded by the European Union (EU) to preserve, maintain, and revitalize Isan ‘culture’ in its broadest definition, including language, performing arts, and traditional handicrafts (weaving and clothing manufacture).
The signs were erected following an extensive survey of 1,500 citizens of Chum Phae Municipality. Approximately two thirds of those polled wanted these signs. The main reasons given were to help maintain and support Isan as a language, to provide more knowledge about Isan as a language, to make local people feel happy, to show both identity and diversity, to promote cultural tourism, and to promote pride in local wisdom. Unfortunately, the survey also showed that over 60% of respondents did not know Isan had been a written language and reveals an unfortunate trend, especially in the case of urban Thai youth, of people not knowing their own local wisdom.
With the publishing of Sinxay we discovered that there are a lot of people who think the world is strictly one of borders and walls and very black and white. Grey doesn’t exist. Thai is Thai, Isaan is Isann and Lao is Lao and that the idea of mixing them up, combining them in creative ways, or displaying them in a way that highlights their convergence and interdependence is wrong, wrong, wrong. And it’s not enough to feel it is wrong, but to rise up in anger and defiance, an example being, going ballistic when they see Lao hyphenated with Thai. It doesn’t matter if it’s speaks to the truth and reality of the world as it is, there are many people, unfortunately often in positions of power, that see the world through narrow viewpoints and will do anything to try to reinforce their misguided perspectives.
We also empathize when they discovered “that over 60% of respondents did not know Isan had been a written language and reveals an unfortunate trend, especially in the case of urban Thai youth of people not knowing their own local wisdom.” That’s exactly why the former mayor of Khon Kaen decided to make Sinxay the new identity of the city in 2005, finding the youth in the municipality ignorant of their history/wisdom and lacking the moral values instilled in epic stories like Sinxay.
That’s why we were so glad to see this article by John Draper. We have to give credit to Thailand for allowing opportunities to honor their diversity and not try to cover it up. What will be the effect of people to see signs in the three languages? It may not be profound, but it could create a ripple effect of seeing the world in a more open way.
The photo above we used came from the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) website