Friday, March 7, 2014

Thai Politics Roiled by Apparently Non-Existent Lanna Separatist Threat in Far North

Members of northern Thailand’s apparently-not-separatist Sor Por Por Lanna movement
Separatism, or at least the specter of it, seems to have arrived in northern Thailand, courtesy of the latest political unrest there.  For the most part, the Kingdom of Thailand has had little internal division, thanks partly to its “natural” national composition, i.e. not the product of European-drawn borders: Thailand is one of the few countries in the world that has never been governed from a European capital.  (Others in this exclusive club include Japan, Korea, Iran, mainland China, and—a partial or near exception—Abyssinia/Ethiopia.)  The only exception in Thailand has been a long-term insurgency in its far-southern border region by ethnic Malays, who would rather not live in a majority-Buddhist state; this is anyway an area where the border with Malaysia was problematically drawn.  But this newest schism is in the north, and some claim it threatens to bisect the ethnic mainstream of the Thai nation itself.

Thai soldiers removing a Sor Por Por Lanna banner
In late February, authorities removed from a pedestrian bridge in Phitsanulok province a banner with the name “Sor Por Por Lanna,” which alarmed political observers assumed to be the name of an imaginary country consisting of the northern Thai people.  “Sor Por Por” was assumed to be a syllabic acronym for “Satharanarat Prachathippatai Prachachon,” which would mean “People’s Democratic Republic of”—plus “Lanna,” which is the name for the northern subgroup of the mainstream Thai ethnonationalist grouping.  (Sor Por Por Lor, for example, is the Thai acronym for the neighboring Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a.k.a. Laos.)  Versions of the banner also appeared in Chiang Mai and Phayao provinces and have been spotted on headbands worn by motorcycling protestors in Chiang Mai associated with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (U.D.D.), or “Red Shirts,” a group that supports Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister deposed in a 2006 coup d’état.  Chiang Mai city was once the capital of the separate Lanna Kingdom or Chiang Mai Kingdom, which was sometimes separate from, and subsidiary to, the Kingdom of Thailand based in Bangkok.  The Lanna kingdom was not really dissolved until the 1940s.

Location of the Lanna Kingdom in the 16th century
The chief of the Royal Thai Army ordered a crackdown of the group called Sor Por Por Lanna, which seemed to be responsible for the separatist banners and regalia.  In response, the group posted an explanation online that Sor Por Por Lanna in fact stands for “Samatcha Pokpong Prachatipatai Lanna,” which means “Lanna Assembly for the Defense of Democracy.”  The group insists it is not separatist.

Barack Obama and Yingluck Shinawatra during a state visit to Thailand in 2012
The politically vulnerable caretaker prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, also denied that her political movement had separatist aims.  Both Shinawatras are from the Lanna region in Chiang Mai province (and are of part Chinese ancestry).

Thailand’s “Red Shirts”
However, the group’s explanation, posted on its Facebook page, does not entire sweep away all talk of separatism. “ Sor Por Por Lanna,” the statement continues, “is aware that it would be difficult for this idea to materialise and it is not the right way of solving the crisis in Thai society.  However, the idea reflects the people’s bitter feelings toward the political injustice which has prevailed since the 2006 coup.  Therefore, instead of taking legal action against ordinary people, the power-holders and various political groupings should seriously look into this problem, beginning with the question why the people have this feeling.  Only an open-minded answer to this question will prevent Thailand from being further divided.”

Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej
Officially, all parties to the current political conflict in Thailand want to keep the country united.  It may even be that the military intentionally misinterpreted the Sor Por Por Lanna banners in order to demonize the opposition and stoke fears of civil war.  But until the conflict is resolved, there is a chance that this phantom fissure may eventually become a real one.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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