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THAILAND: Sakdina System and Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy

Mark Tamthai

(Ed. note: Mark Tamthai is a professor with the Centre for Philosophy and Public Policy of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.)

The Sakdina system in Thailand was a system of social hierarchy in place officially until this century, with remnants still existing in different parts of contemporary Thai society. In contrast to some social systems found elsewhere, the Sakdina system was part of the legal system which King Rama I codified under the 3-seal Code (a legal code of more than 1,200 articles) a little over 200 years ago. This code gathered together laws that had been in existence for hundreds of years. In this sense the Sakdina system became institutionalised through the legal system. The essence of the Sakdina system is that different members of society have different social ranks (measured by the unit "Na") depending on their position or nature of work, how people are to behave towards one another as well as how much society considers their "worth" which depends on their Na. Consider the following examples from the 3-seal Code:

How much weight is given to a witness' testimony in a trial depends on the witness' Na. Higher Na means that person is more believable.

When a person with lower Na accuses someone of much higher Na, if the case is concluded in favor of the person of lower Na, then a moderate fine is levied against the accused. But if the case is against the accuser, then the punishment is much greater for having brought a case against someone of higher Na.

In the majority of crimes, the punishment depends greatly on the Na of the perpetrator and the Na of the victim.

Women, who are the first, second or later wives, have different Na, relative to each other and depending on the Na of the husband.

In some cases a person with higher Na must accept greater punishment than that of someone with lower Na for the same crime (as if more is expected of that person).

The fact that members of Thai society could have a change in their Na (either increase or decrease), as well as cases like example 5, shows that the Sakdina system was not just a simple system of the powerful in society exploiting the less powerful but rather an intricate and sophisticated system which evolved into an institutionalised inequality through law, establishing what was believed to be a desirable and harmonious society.

Understanding this system is relevant to the promotion of human rights in Thailand today because the promotion of human rights and democracy is about the idea that all members of society are equally deserving of respect and dignity, and that all members of society have equal ability in making political choices. To promote human rights and democracy in Thai society, then means to put in place a major social transformation - from 700 years of a view where different parts of society have their proper "places," almost everyone is both a patron to someone and at the same time having someone else as a patron, to a view where participation by all members of society - is seen as truly being of positive value.

Posted on 2001-08-21
Asian Human Rights Commission

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