The Isan people (Thai: คนอีสาน, RTGS: Khon Isan, Thai pronunciation: [kʰōn ʔīːsǎːn]; Lao: ຄົນອີສານ, Burmese: အီသန်လူမျိုး) or Northeastern Thai people are an ethno–regional group native to Northeastern Thailand (“Isan”) with an estimated population of about 22 million. Alternative terms for this group are T(h)ai Isan,Thai-Lao,Lao Isan, or Isan Lao. Like Thais (Siamese) and Lao, they belong to the linguistic family of Tai peoples.
In a broader sense, everyone who comes from the 20 northeastern provinces of Thailand may be called khon isan. In the narrower sense, the term refers only to the ethnic Lao who make up the majority population in most parts of the region. After the failed Lao Rebellion in 1826, the region witnessed mass forced population transfers of ethnic Lao into Isan. Following the separation of Isan from the historical Lao Kingdom, its integration into the Thai nation state and the central government’s policy of “Thaification“, they have developed a distinct regional identity that differs both from the Laotians of Laos and the Thais of Central Thailand. Integration of this identity into Thai national identity began around 1900, accelerated during the fascist era, was aggressively pursued during the Cold War, and is maintained today, although in 2011, Thailand officially recognized the Lao identity to the United Nations. Even during the height of the Cold War, the level of this integration was very high, as measured by expression of nationalist sentiments. Even today, the Isan people are some of the most nationalist in Thailand; they are more nationalist than the Central Thai. As such, during the height of Thailand’s ‘color wars’ in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the mainly Isan-based Red Shirts were not calling for separatism but a return to democracy, in support of the Pheu Thai party.
Almost all inhabitants of Thailand’s Northeast are Thai nationals. Yet a majority of them (approximately 80%) are ethnically Lao and speak a variant of the Lao language when at home (the three main Lao dialects spoken in Northeastern Thailand are summarized as the Isan language). To avoid being subjected to derogatory stereotypes and perceptions associated with Lao-speaking people, most prefer to call themselves khon isan.
Thailand’s longstanding policy was not to regard Isan as a separate ethnicity, based on the principle of considering all Tai groups living in Thailand as part of the Thai people. This successfully downplayed the majority Lao ethnicity and led to the development of a distinct regional Isan identity, which is, nonetheless, multi ethnic.
In 2011, Thailand recognized almost all its ethnolinguistic identities. The following table shows all the officially recognized ethnolinguistic groups of Northeast Thailand. The source, a 2011 country report to the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, uses revised (2004) Mahidol University Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand data (1997), which provides population numbers for most Northeast Thailand ethnic groups. Subsequently, in 2015, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security’s 2015 Master Plan for the Development of Ethnic Groups in Thailand 2015-2017 officially recognized the majority of the Northeast’s peoples, the main exception being the ‘Thai Lao’ group. Further, it did not recognize the ‘Isan’ ethnic identity.
The first Western scholar to identify and study the distinct “ethno-regional” identity of khon isan was the US anthropologist Charles F. Keyes in 1967. He chose to categorize them as a “ethno-regional” group rather than an ethnic minority, given that their “cultural differences have been taken to be characteristic of a particular part of the country rather than of a distinctive people.” He has, nonetheless, consistently described them as being formed mainly of the ethnic Lao group.
About 88% of the people habitually speak the Isan language at home, while 11% say they speak both Isan and Central Thai among themselves, and only 1% speak Central Thai exclusively. “Isan”, “Lao” and “Thai” languages form a dialect continuum, in many cases the linguistic varieties do not coincide with the geographical and political boundaries. Defining and differentiating these three “languages” according to objective, linguistic criteria is impossible. The different terms are rather used for political and emotional reasons. In official contexts as well as in school and university classes, only Standard Thai is allowed. There are hardly any mass media publishing or broadcasting in Isan. Many Isan people, especially the younger and well-educated ones as well as those living in towns or outside their native region, master standard Thai on a native or near-native level. Some of them are even shy to speak their original language with their own parents, and in public or in the presence of Thais from other regions due to the low social prestige. Many Central Thais, but also some Isan speakers, associate the Isan language with being uneducated and backward. Therefore, many Isan practice diglossia (i.e. Isan in familiar and informal contexts, standard Thai in public and official ones) or code-switching in their everyday lives. Despite effectively being banned in official discourse, since at least the 1997 Thai constitution, the Isan language has been used publicly within the Northeast for communicating Thai discourses, including political discourses, and there has been a recent resurgence in assertion of the Lao identity, including language.