Saturday, April 17, 2010

Preserving the Tai Identity: A Lesson from the Past

by Maw Faifa


Traditionally, the Tai/Shan people of Shan State (Myanmar), Yunan province of China, and Northern Thailand live in small towns or villages, which are generally monolingual and mono-cultural. In such an environment, speaking Tai/Shan language is an integral part of daily life.

The worldwide trend to move to big cities as well as economic and security issues has brought a wave of Tai/Shans out of Shan State to regional urban centres, such as Bangkok, Chiangmai, Mandalay and Yangon where they are exposed to more modernized languages and cultures. The author knows many cases in which the children of these emigrants have better access to education and training but very limited knowledge of their own language and native culture. Combined with other factors, this lack of exposure to Tai/Shan culture may lead them to not identifying themselves with the Tai/Shan ethnic community. Given the present challenges faced by the Tai/Shan ethnic community, the loss of young educated Tai/Shans as well as their descendents through identity erosion is a significant loss for the entire Tai/Shan ethnic community.

An understanding of the loss of identity of migrant ethnic communities may serve as a conceptual tool in mitigating the possible loss of identity among contemporary Tai/Shan migrants. To this end, this paper attempts to identify the factors the led to ethnic identity erosion of a previous wave to Tai/Shan emigrants that moved to urban centres in Burma/Myanmar 50 to 70 years ago. The insight gained from this analysis is used to synthesize a conceptual framework, which may be used as a tool to generate ideas for sustaining the Tai/Shan identity and culture in urban Tai/Shan communities.

Section II of this paper describes the problem of ethnic/cultural identity erosion among some Tai/Shan emigrants and identifies some of its possible causes. Section III proposes a conceptual framework, which may be used as a conceptual tool to generate ideas to mitigate the possible identity erosion problem. Concluding remarks are given in section IV.

Problem Definition and Analysis

The term Tai/Shan in this paper refers to an ethnic community that includes, but is not limited to, native Tai (any dialect) speakers or offspring of native Tai speakers in Shan State and Myanmar, Dehong Dai speakers of China and Thai Yai and Thai Kheun speakers of Thailand. Most members of this ethnic group live within the boundaries of what is officially known as the Union of Myanmar, particularly in Shan and Kachin states.

Ethnic/Cultural Identity Erosion

The emigration of Tai/Shans of Shan State began before the arrival of the British as evidenced by the existence of Tai/Shan villages in Myanmar proper. Unlike the earlier emigrants, the Tai/Shan emigrants of the 20th early and mid century headed for British administered towns and cities in Myanmar proper, such as Yangon (Rangoon) and Shan State, such as Taunggyi and Kalaw, in search of educational, professional and business opportunities. Among them were some young emigrants from the Tai/Shan ruling families and the top tier civil servants. This wave of elite Tai/Shan emigrants will be referred to as Wave X emigrants from this point on. These emigrants included many young Tai/Shans from elite families and none of the cities they moved to for education and career opportunities had significant Tai speaking population. In their adopted hometowns, Wave X emigrants and their children learned to communicate in fluent English and Burmese, received the then modern education and joined non-traditional professions. Some of them went even abroad to pursue advanced studies. However, many Wave X emigrants failed to sustain a strong sense of Tai/Shan ethnic identity and their children, most of whom do not speak a word of Tai/Shan, do not consider themselves ethic Tai/Shan at all. The loss of that generation of well educated and members is a significant loss for the Tai/Shan ethnic community.

A case in point is that of two Tai/Shan sisters from Laikha in central Shan State. Their father, who was a minister in the Saopha’s court, sent the elder one to a missionary school in Moulmein in the 1920s and then to Rangoon university, where she became the first Tai/Shan women to get a university degree and she settled down in Rangoon afterwards. The younger one attended a local school up to grade seven. The children of the elder sister grew up to be a professor, a doctor, an engineer and an administrator. However, none of her children speak Tai/Shan and none of them consider themselves Tai/Shan. On the other hand, both children of the younger sister went to the local school in their native town and grew up to be a farmer and a housewife. Although they speak Tai/Shan and consider themselves as such, they do not have the education and knowledge to help the Tai community adjust to the modern world. One aim of this paper is to reduce the repetition of similar identity erosion among the contemporary Tai/Shan emigrants who have been leaving their homeland in the past 20 years. These migrants will be called Wave Y emigrants in the remainder of this paper.

The social identity theory is stated here to help analyze the loss of identity of Wave X emigrants.

Social Identity Theory

Social Identity Theory helps explain why individuals identify with, and behave as part of social groups, such as an ethnic community. Its main points may be summarized as follows.

1) Identification: Social identification is a perception of oneness with a group of persons. This group identity then becomes an integral aspect of an individual’s sense of ‘who they are’.

2) Categorization and Comparison: Social identification stems from the categorization of individuals, and human beings have the tendency to put themselves and others into categories. The reason for doing so may be that, after identifying themselves with a certain group, individuals seek to achieve positive self-esteem by positively differentiating their own group from other groups on some valued dimension. Moreover, the need to enhance their self-esteem would lead individuals to activities, which are engage in activities which they believe will improve their group's position relative to other groups.

Problem Analysis

Interviewing some Wave X emigrants within the author's reach revealed several reasons for the erosion of Tai/Shan identity. This section paper discusses two of them. Firstly, membership in the Tai/Shan community offers no attractions for the children of Wave X emigrants. Secondly, the circumstances of the time did not lend themselves to formation of culturally active Tai/Shan communities in Myanmar urban centres.

1) Lack of Attraction: According to one aspect of the social identity theory, individuals in a group want to see 'us' as different from and better than 'them' in other groups in order to enhance their own self-esteem. In light of this, the Tai/Shan ethnic community of early and mid twentieth century was not an attractive group to be in. The Tai/Shan society in Shan State and Myanmar proper at the turn of the twentieth century was a peasant society ruled by feudal lords (Saophas). Its forms of cultural expressions, such as dances, songs, festivals were meant to take place in rural settings for mainly illiterate, rice farming peasants. In fact, some states, such as Laikha, brought in Burman entertainers for major events in their capital towns. In fact, there was already a notion among some members of the Tai/Shan community that the Burman culture was more sophisticated and advanced than their own. For example, a former Tai/Shan Saopha once said that he fell in love with the richness of Burman culture when he first got his Gramophone in the 1930s. By then, the Burmans had already developed a record industry for their urbanized population whereas the Tai/Shans of Shan State had nothing of that nature. It was in this backdrop that Wave X emigrants moved to Myanmar urban centres, where they were exposed to more of urbanized and modernized Burman culture as well avenues to advance themselves intellectually, professionally and economically in ways that most Tai/Shans could not even dream of. Under such circumstances, it was very difficult for these young Tai/Shan emigrants to bolster their self esteem through expressing membership in their own ethnic community. These Tai/Shan emigrants were looking forward to modernity while their perception of Tai/Shan ethnic community is a peasant society ruled by feudal lords that had comparatively back-ward forms of cultural expressions.

2) Barriers to Forming Active Tai/Shan Communities: Even for Wave X emigrants who wanted to remain part of the Tai/Shan ethnic community, there were barriers to forming culturally active communities in their adopted home-towns in British ruled Myanmar proper. These barriers included the small size of their communities as well as modern forms of Tai/Shan cultural expressions that would appeal to educated urban dwellers. Moreover, virtually no Tai/Shan language books, periodicals, recorded music and movies were available to fulfill the intellectual and cultural needs of these newly educated Tai/Shan emigrants. Thus, Wave X migrants had nothing to counter the attraction of more modern and sophisticated Burmese culture. Consequently, their sense of Tai/Shan identity either became dormant or faded away over time. Moreover, they either failed or chose not to pass down their Tai/Shan linguistic and cultural heritage to their children.

Proposed Solutions

It is helpful to restate that Wave Y emigrants are the Tai/Shan emigrants who have moved to major cities in the region (Myanmar and Thailand) or overseas over the past twenty years. This section uses the insight gained in the analysis of the previous section to help answer the question, “how can we minimize the chance of ethnic identity erosion among Wave Y Tai/Shan emigrants?”

In comparison with Wave X emigrants, there are sufficiently large numbers of Wave Y emigrants in Bangkok, Chiangmai, Mandalay, and Yangon to form culturally active communities. Moreover, modern Tai/Shan books, songs and videos are available on various media including the internet. However, many urban based Tai/Shan youths may not yet find the Tai/Shan community to be an attractive group. In light of the material presented in section II, it is clear that the Tai/Shan ethnic community should:

  1. Make itself attractive for city dwelling Tai/Shan youths to identify with by modernizing the Tai/Shan culture and by promoting a cool image of the culture;

  2. Create an environment in which community members can participate in activities that are aimed at the advancement of the community;

  3. Be open to Tai/Shan youths with no or little prior knowledge of their own language and culture.


Contemporary young Tai/Shans often get to hear that the Tai/Shan ethnic community could disappear if they do not speak their native language, participate in cultural events and marry within the community. Such a message is a powerful one for the natives of the Tai/Shan heartland but it might not mean much to most Tai/Shan youths who were born and raised in non-Shan urban centres. Thus, it is proposed that the Tai/Shan community build a positive and attractive (cool, sexy) image of itself to attract urbanized Tai/Shan migrants. To be credible, the image should be backed up with positive developments in the community, such as the achievements of certain members (business people, artisans, scholars, youths), advent of new media, art forms and ideas and plans for further modernization of Tai/Shan language and culture.

The objective of the image building exercise is to show current and potential members of the Tai/Shan community that ‘we’ are different from and better than ‘them’ on some dimensions. Such an image will provide a way for individual Tai/Shans to boost his or her self esteem by considering himself/herself as Tai/Shan and participating in the activities for further advancement of the Tai/Shan community.


There are many urban dwelling Tai/Shan youths who do not know their own language and culture and are no longer certain about their ethnic identity. The Tai/Shan community cannot afford not to accept some of these youths with open arms if they wish to rejoin the community and learn their lost language and culture. It is worth developing suitable study material for such Tai/Shan youths to facilitate their re-integration into the community.


It is concluded that the lack of attractiveness was a major factor contributing to identity erosion among Wave X emigrants. Based on this finding, it recommends that the Tai/Shan ethnic community take pro-active measures to make itself an attractive group to the children of Wave Y immigrants.