Each time Muean Chimoon leaves his wooden house in northern Thailand, he pays homage to a portrait of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a father figure and long a symbol of national unity.
“We have a king who loves everyone,” said Muean, a retired bus driver who exudes the renowned cheerful insouciance of rural Thailand.
Yet when the conversation turns to politics, Muean’s smile disappears. He lashes out at the “arrogance” of protesters in Bangkok who want to overthrow the government, which has overwhelming support in the north and northeast.
“Bangkok has always wanted to choose their own prime minister,” Muean said. “They don’t care what northern people think, they just care about themselves.”
Thailand is the land of the Thais, of course, but also of the Lanna, Lao, Mon, Malay, Khmer and Chinese, among other ethnic groups subsumed into the country over the centuries. Eight years into Thailand’s political crisis over the influence of the prime minister’s family, some of those ethnic identities are resurfacing. The country’s political divisions approximately follow the outlines of ancient kingdoms and principalities, rekindling bygone impulses for greater autonomy from Bangkok.
“I’ve never seen the country this divided,” said Ponganand Srisai, a member of the local council in Baan Nong Tun, a rice-farming northeastern village.
Banners strung across roads in the north calling for secession have been among the most extreme expressions of the north’s bitterness toward Bangkok. In present-day northwestern Thailand, the Lanna Kingdom, including Lamphun, was annexed by Bangkok in 1899 and for decades its people have spoken a dialect distinct from the Thai officially recognized and promoted by the central government. At the time of annexation, the region had its own written language, which used a different alphabet from Thai.
Less radical have been proposals for devolution of the centralized powers of the government.
A group of local government associations and academics, the People’s Network for a Self-Governing Administration, submitted a bill to the Thai parliament last year calling for greater self-administration for provinces.
“We propose that power be restructured,” the group said in a statement last month.
Among the proposals — which have not yet been taken up by parliament — are electing provincial governors directly, and having more taxes collected and spent locally.
The People’s Network for a Self-Governing Administration says Bangkok “lacks knowledge or neglects the differences of local identities.”
Tanet Charoenmuang, a prominent commentator and proponent of greater autonomy for northern Thailand, says northerners perceive government institutions as favoring the capital at the expense of the provinces.
“Injustice has helped fertilize localization,” Tanet said. “Thailand has been an overcentralized state and a sense of localism is quietly re-emerging.”
For the north, much of the appeal of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her family is that they have been trying to refocus government resources and attention toward rural areas in recent years, cementing the loyalty of villagers. That push started under the leadership of her brother, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup supported by the Bangkok elites that is the antecedent to the current standoff.