Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
History of Isan
The history of Isan has been determined by its geography: situated between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, it has been dominated by each in turn, although its relative infertility meant it was more often a battleground than a prize. Rather than being incorporated into the respective empires of each power, the area was divided into statelets (mueang) each paying tribute to one or more powers under the mandala system.
Isan's most important prehistoric sites are the settlement of Ban Chiang (Udon Thani province) and the cliff paintings at Pha Taem (Ubon Ratchathani province), dated to around 3000 BC and 1500 BC respectively. The Ban Chiang site is particularly important, as it shows traces of a bronze age culture. Some Thai nationalist historians have taken these sites as evidence that the ancestors of the Thai and Lao people were already in the region at this time, but the historical consensus is that their migration to the area is of a later date.
The first major civilisation to occupy Isan was the Dvaravati culture. This was an Indianised civilisation of the Mon people, which flourished in much of the area of modern-day Thailand from the 6th century. The most important legacy of the Dvaravati was the Buddhist religion. It was in this period that the characteristically south-east Asian Buddha images evolved.
From the 11th century, the Dvaravati/Mon culture was increasingly displaced by the empire of the related Khmer people, centred on Angkor. The Khmer built a number of temples in southern Isan, most notably at Phanom Rung and Phimai, which lie on the Ancient Khmer Highway.
The Thai kingdom of Sukhothai broke from the Khmer empire around 1238 AD. Although Isan is not thought to have been a part of the Sukhothai kingdom, Sukhothai did force the Khmer empire to retreat to its Cambodian heartlands, leaving Isan in the hands of fragmented meuang or statelets. These enjoyed varying degrees of independence, paying tribute under the mandala system to whichever regional power was dominant at the time.
The Lao kingdom of Lan Xang (Lan Chang) was established in Luang Prabang in 1353 by Fa Ngum, with help from the Khmers. This kingdom was to provide Isan with much of its later population. As the Khmer empire continued to retreat under pressure from the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, Lan Xang was able to expand its influence in Isan. Lao settlers moved into northern Isan between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, and into southern Isan from the 18th century onwards.
This new power vacuum was filled by the Siamese kingdom, established in Bangkok following the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese. Isan and Laos were divided into a series of mueang with varying degrees of independence, but each paying tribute to Siam.
In 1827, King Anouvong (or Chao Anu) of Vientiane revolted, in an attempt to restore its independence. The defeat of the revolt was followed by forced population transfers from Laos to Isan, further increasing the dominance of Lao culture in the region but weakening the meuang of modern-day Laos.
The last major rebellion in Isan took place in 1902, but it was quickly defeated. The rebellion broke out when the Minister of Interior, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, introduced the thesaphiban administration system, which transferred much power from the traditional provincial governors (drawn from the local nobility) to the newly established commissioners of the monthon, appointed from Bangkok.
In the 20th century Siam consolidated its control over Isan through a programme of "Thaification". The introduction of a national school system in the 1920s replaced instruction by monks in the Isan language with teaching in the Thai language only. Radio and television, when they began, also broadcast in Thai. They included (and still do) twice daily broadcasts of the national anthem and plentiful tributes to the Thai king.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Isan was perceived by the Thai government as a potential breeding ground for Communism. The regionís poverty, history of independence, remoteness and inaccessible terrain all contributed to this fear.
Inevitably, the extent to which Communist insurgents were a real threat in Isan is hard to determine. It is known that there were a number of political attacks from the 1960s onwards, and that activists and equipment entered the region from Laos. On the other hand, the number of rebels probably never exceeded a few thousand, and the combination of action by the security forces and the offers of amnesties had largely ended the threat by the early 1980s.
The fight against Communism persuaded the government to allow the establishment of a number of US bases in Isan, notably at Khorat, Nakhon Phanom, Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani. Although the bases were directed at Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, they had an indirect effect in promoting development and opposing Communism in Isan. The bases required the creation of improved transport links, facilitating the integration of Isan with the rest of Thailand. The most important of these were the Thanon Mitraphap or "Friendship Highways", which linked the region's major cities with each other, with Bangkok and with the eastern seaboard. They remain Isan's primary road links. Complemented by Thai government programs to build minor roads, these projects did much to bind rural Isan more closely to the cities and to Bangkok.
The number of US servicemen reached its peak in 1969 at 50,000 . This influx of US personnel also had a direct effect in exposing the region to western culture. This helped to promote the development of the region, but it also created a sizable sex industry in the vicinity of the bases. Finally, the US military presence contributed substantial sums of money to the areaís economy. The bases were closed at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
The Thai government promoted development in Isan as one weapon in the fight against Communism. In particular, Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarajata, who took control of the country in 1958, had his roots in Isan and promoted a number of development projects.
From the 1960s onwards, the government launched a string of development programmes aimed wholly or in part at Isan. These began with a five year development plan announced in 1961 and backed by US aid . An Accelerated Rural Development Programme followed in 1964, again with US support. This was administered by provincial governors in the hope of circumventing the inefficiencies of central government, but it could not evade the problems of bureaucracy, corruption and a conservative mindset which hampered all development efforts.
1960s projects to introduce improved crop strains have been criticised for forcing farmers to take out loans to pay for the seed, fertiliser and equipment required, while reducing genetic diversity. Even in the 1970s, government per capita spending on rural assistance programmes was lower in Isan than anywhere else in Thailand .
Nevertheless, much was achieved: Mobile Rural Development Units focusing on health education trained about 1000 field workers per year in the late 1960s; hydroelectric schemes such as Nam Pong/Ubon Ratana power station in Khon Kaen and Lam Pao in Kalasin provided electricity; toilets were distributed; government rice purchase programmes maintained prices.
Education efforts increased the proportion of children attending high school from 4.4% in 1970 to 80% by 2000. Universities were established, beginning with Khon Kaen in 1964. Ubon Ratchathani, Suranee University of Technology and Mahasarakham University followed.
The most important recent political issue in Isan has been the construction of the Pak Mun dam in the district of Kong Chiam , in Ubon Rachatani province. The project was completed in 1994, flooding 117 square kilometres of land and displacing around 3000 families. The project has been criticised for insufficient compensation payments, adverse effects on the fisheries of the Mun River, and failure to produce the projected power output.
Protesters against the Pak Mun dam joined with other grassroots activists in 1995 to form the Assembly of the Poor, a group seeking to promote the involvement of the poor in decision-making processes, and to have their interests taken into account. The group has organised a number of protests against the project in Bangkok. The prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has responded by claiming that NGO activists are trouble-makers who do not reflect the opinions of ordinary people.
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