Politics and Identity in the Northeast

Duncan McCargo first visited Thailand’s Northeast (Isan) region in 1985, when many of the roads were paved only with red dust, and the military still stopped provincial buses, searching them for suspected communists. He has maintained close ties with the region, especially through Mahasarakham University (which gave him an honorary doctorate in Thai Studies in 2010) and latterly Ubon Ratchathani University. Four of his PhD students have written their doctorates on grassroots politics in the Northeast.

His best known article  on the region deals with vote-buying in the 1995 election (co-authored with Bill Callahan). More recently he has published a number of articles on politics, identity, and language in the Northeast, often with Thai colleagues and former students. The thrust of all these articles is the same: Northeasterners have not willingly abandoned their underlying Lao identity to live as  khon isan, in effect as second class Thai citizens, as Keyes and others have claimed. Rather, the Northeast is a region of resistance that has yet to be psychologically assimilated by Bangkok. Many Northeasterners hold a contested identity as ‘urbanized villagers’, legally resident in the region but spending most of their time in greater Bangkok.

In short, Duncan McCargo believes that the unresolved identity conflicts of millions of Northeasterners are a major reason for Thailand’s continuing political instability.


Duncan McCargo, ‘Thailand’s Urbanized Villagers and Political Polarization’, Critical Asian Studies, 49, 3, 2017: 365–78.

Saowanee Alexander and Duncan McCargo, ‘War of Words: Isan redshirt activists and discourses of Thai democracy’, Southeast Asia Research, 24, 2, 2016: 222–241.

Saowanee Alexander and Duncan McCargo, ‘Diglossia and Identity in Northeast Thailand: Linguistic, social, and political hierarchy’, Journal of Sociolinguistics, 18, 1, 2014: 60–86.

Naruemon Thabchumpon and Duncan McCargo, ‘Urbanized Villagers in the 2010 Thai Redshirt Protests: not just poor farmers?’ Asian Survey, 51, 6, 2011: 993–1018.

Duncan McCargo and Krisadawan Hongladarom, ‘Contesting Isan-ness: discourses of politics and identity in Northeast Thailand’, Asian Ethnicity, 5, 2, 2004: 219–34.

William A. Callahan and Duncan McCargo, ‘Vote-Buying in Thailand’s Northeast: the July 1995 general election’, Asian Survey, 36, 4, 1996: 376–93.

Book Chapter

Saowanee Alexander and Duncan McCargo, ‘Exit, Voice, (Dis)loyalty? Northeast Thailand after the 2014 coup’ in Michael J. Montesano, Terence Chong and Mark Heng (eds), After the Coup: The National Council for Peace and Order Era and the Future of Thailand, Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019, pp. 90–113.