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Politics and Identity in the Northeast

I first visited Thailand's Northeast (Isan) region in 1985, when many of the roads were paved only with red dust, and soldiers still stopped provincial buses, searching them for suspected communists. My best known article on the region deals with vote-buying in the 1995 election (co-authored with Bill Callahan). I've maintained close ties with Isan, especially through Mahasarakham University (which gave me an honorary doctorate in Thai Studies in 2010) and latterly Ubon Ratchathani University. Four of my PhD students have written their doctorates on grassroots politics in the Northeast.

But the material gathered for this study has been sufficient to qualify widely held views about the inexorable rise of a distinctive Isan identity that is progressively replacing residual feelings of Lao-ness. The meanings of these terms are in flux, as well as the feelings they evoke (McCargo and Krisadawan 2004: 233).

More recently, I have published a number of articles on politics, identity, and language in the Northeast, mainly with Thai colleagues and former students. The core argument of all these articles goes like this: 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.

... interviewed students spoke of phasa isan-speaking peers who avoided speaking the language because of embarrassment. Why was this the case, when phasa isan is widely used in the region where the great majority of the respondents were born? Are these speakers reluctant to share honest self-assessments of their ability to speak the language because it is a language of inferior people? (Alexander and McCargo 2014)

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, I believe 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 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.