Though the great majority of Thailand's 60 million people are ethnically Thai and Buddhist, the country has a substantial number of minority groups who have historically lived together in harmony. Of these the Chinese are perhaps the most numerous, particularly in urban areas, though they have become so thoroughly assimilated it would be difficult to isolate them as a distinct group. Similarly, while there are Laos and Khmer groups in the northeast and west, nearly all regard themselves as Thai, culturally as well as by nationality. More clearly defined are the Muslims, who are mainly concentrated in the southern provinces, and assorted hill tribes who live in the far north; there are also sizeable communities of Hindus and Sikhs in large Icities like Bangkok.
Perhaps the best way to comprehend Thai socia1 values is to focus on its basic unit, the family, and in particular the rural family in its typical village setting. Generally this will be an extended family, with several generations living under one roof, or at least under several roofs within the same compound; and it is here that the Thai child learns codes of behavior that will guide him throughout much of his later life, whether it is spent in the village or beyond.
In a village, home is usually a simple wooden house raised on posts; domestic animals like buffalos, pigs, and chickens are kept below, and the family lives above, often in a single room. There is little privacy, though this is not as highly regarded as in Western countries, and the communal life style instills a strong sense of social harmony in which tact compromise, and tolerance are essential.. The father is regarded as the leader, but the mother also plays a significant role, particularly in the family finances.
When small, children are treated permissively by various members of the family, which as likely as not will include grandparents and sometimes more distant relatives as well. Respect for elders is taught very early, however, and by the time a child walks he is aware of his position in the family hierarchy, a distinction that applies not only to the relationship between parents and children but also to that between siblings of different ages. This same delineation of roles also applies to the wider world outside the family and will remain deeply ingrained throughout life, thus explain-ing the reluctance of younger Thais to oppose or otherwise confront a senior during their subsequent careers in business or government.
A sense of responsibility is also inculcated in early childhood. Each child is assigned certain duties according to age and ability feeding livestock, leading the family buffalo to graze in nearby pastures, taking care of younger brothers and sisters while parents are at work in the fields. As they grow older, responsibilities increase and they are allowed to participate in family discussions, with their opinions taken into account when important decisions are made.
One of the prime responsibilities placed on children is that of taking care of parents in their old age, a prominent feature of the Thai concept of family. There is no feeling of being inconvenienced by this duty of caring for aged parents; on the contrary, their acquired wisdom gives them an honored place in the household, and their counsel is actively sought in teaching their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be responsible adults with the same traditional values.Village Organization and Leadership
Beyond the family, the next larger unit of social organization is the village. Although there are regional variations in house styles and crop cultivations, and the setting may vary, in essence Thai villages are remarkably similar, revolving around well-defined climatic, religious, and farming seasons.
The typical village contains around 100 to 150 households, or an average of 500 to 700 inhabitants. The houses are nearly all simple wooden structures elevated on stilts as protection against flooding and unwelcome animal intruders and also to improve air circulation. A small wooden granary, also on stilts, is often found beside the house, together with large earthenware jars in which rainwater is stored for drinking. Most villages now have electricity and water.
On the village outskirts are the local school and the wat or Buddhist monastery, sometimes adjacent to one another, sometimes at opposite ends of the village. The school is generally a simple wooden building, perhaps a single room where several classes are held simultaneously; an essential feature is the flagpole upon which the Thai flag is ceremoniously raised each school morning and lowered in the evening. The monastery, constructed and maintained largely through local donations and thus reflecting the village's wealth, is often separated from the community by an open field to give the resident monks maximum privacy and seclusion for their religious activities. This grassy expanse also serves as the village common, a place where children assemble to play kickball and where local fetes are held.
The village is self-governing, led by an elected headman, or phu-yai-ban, who until recent years was always a man; since 1983, however, women have also been elected to the position. A candidate is not affiliated with any political party but must be a literate Thai householder who has resided in the village at least six months and be at least 25 years old. If he retains the villagers' esteem, the phu-yai~bin can remain in the post until retirement at 60 through repeated reelections; by the same token, he can be removed if he forfeits their respect.
The phu-yai-ban preserves the social harmony valued so highly by all Thais by skilfully settling minor disputes, taking care to ensure that neither party feels cheated or loses face. In addition, he keeps the village birth and death records and acts as a spokesman for the community in negotiations with the government bureaucracy.
Administratively, neighboring villagers are organized into groups known as tambon which, depending on topography and population density, consist of two to 28 villages. The phu-yai-ban within each tambon elect one of themselves to be kamnan, or commune head-person. Thailand has nearly 5,000 tambon at present. The kamnan is chairman of. a committee which often includes a government school headmaster, an agricultural extension worker, and sometimes a Health Department doctor or paramedic in charge of a local clinic. It also contains at least, two men selected by the nai amphoe or district officer, who is the kamnan's immediate superior or appointed by the provincial governor.
This committee is responsible for deciding, which villages should have new roads, irrigation budgets and health services, while the kamnan's main individual responsibilities are to see that justice prevails within the commune, to maintain records and statistics, to help preserve peace, to assist in collecting taxes, and to act as the intermediary between the district officer and all village headpersons in his tambon.
The wat is the focal point of the village, symbolizing the Buddhist religion and also acting as the major unifying element, particularly during festivals and merit-making ceremonies when it also becomes a social center for young and old alike. Abbots and senior monks frequently enjoy more prestige and moral persuasion than the village head, and in times of personal crisis they are often the first whose advice is sought. Within the wat the abbot has absolute administrative, clerical, custodial, disciplinary, and spiritual responsibilities, and they determine the monastery's relationship with the village. If an abbot is scholarly, meditative, and retiring, the monastery is unlikely to concern itself much with mundane village affairs. On, the other hand, if one is a dynamic personality he may make the wat a community center with a subtle but powerful influence on social action. Every young man in the village, before he starts his own family, will spend a period of study and reflection in the wat, thus increasing the influence of Buddhism.
Buddhist teachings are at the root of the typical Thai villager's sincere consideration for others, embodied in the virtue known as namchai, "water of. the heart," a concept encompassing spontaneous warmth and compassion that allows families to make anonymous sacrifices for friends and to extend hospitality to strangers. For example, a stranger visiting a village will rarely be seen as an intruder and a subject for suspicion and distrust. Much more likely, the villagers will have the namchai to take him in, feed him, offer him a bed in one of their homes, and generally treat him as a friend. Buddhism also lies behind such common expressions as mai pen rai (or "never mind, it doesn't matter") when something unfortunate happens, reflecting the feeling that one must gracefully submit to external forces beyond one's control, such as the effects of past karma.
Although highly individualistic and resisting regimentation, Thais nevertheless realize that inner freedom is best preserved in an emotionally and physically stable environment. Therefore, they believe that social harmony is best maintained by avoiding any unnecessary friction in their contacts with others.
From this has grown the strong Thai feeling of krengchai, which means an extreme reluctance to impose on anyone or disturb his personal equilibrium by direct criticism, challenge, or confrontation. In general, people will do their utmost to avoid personal conflict. Outward expressions of anger are also regarded as dangerous to social harmony and as being obvious signs of ignorance, crudity, and immaturity.
Within such a behavioral framework, Thais share very definite views on what constitutes friendship and enjoyment. Sincere friendship among Thais is extremely intense; the language is rich in expressions which reflect the degree of involvement and willing self-sacrifice. Such relationships are found particularly among men. A 'phuan tai"- literally , "death friend"-is a companion for whom it would be an honor to die. Should a friend become involved in difficulties, his friend feels an obligation to help him, regardless of the danger to himself, because "tong chuai phuan " -"One must help one's friends." This requirement is a sensitive point of honor and explains many circumstance that often baffle outsiders.
On the level of acquaintanceship, politeness predominates. When greeting people, Thais will usually, show their concern for others' health by remarking how "thin" or "fat" he or she has become. The remark is intended as a gesture of friendship.