The Isan people (Thai: คนอีสาน, RTGS: Khon Isan, Thai pronunciation: [kʰōn ʔīːsǎːn]; Lao: ຄົນອີສານ, or "Northeastern Thai") are an ethno-regional group native to Northeastern Thailand ("Isan") with an estimated population of about 22 million. Like Thais 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. Following the separation of Isan from the state of Laos, 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. Alternative terms for this group are T(h)ai Isan, Thai-Lao, Lao Isan, or Isan Lao.
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 Lao dialects spoken in Northeastern Thailand are summarized as Isan language). At least in the face of outsiders, most of them avoid to identify as "Lao" and prefer to call themselves khon isan.
Thailand's policy is not to regard Isan as a separate ethnicity, but officially to consider all Tai groups living in Thailand as part of the Thai people. This has successfully downplayed their Lao kinship and led to the development of a distinct regional Isan 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 categorise 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."
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 in public or in presence of Thais from other regions due to the low social prestige. Many Central Thais, but also some Isan speakers, associate Isan language with uneducateness and backwardness. 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.
Millions of people have migrated from Isan to the Bangkok agglomeration seeking work and they constitute at least one-fourth of the capital's population. About 8,000 from Isan live in Laos on the eastern bank of the Mekong River, which forms much of the border with Thailand. Others have emigrated to Malaysia, Singapore, and western countries such as Australia and the United States.
- David Brown (1994). "Internal colonialism and ethnic rebellion in Thailand". The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia. Routledge. pp. 109–142.
- Volker Grabowsky, ed. (1995). "The Northeast (Isan)". Regions and National Integration in Thailand, 1892-1992. Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 105–192.
- Charles F. Keyes (2014). Finding Their Voice: Northeastern Villagers and the Thai State. Silkworm Books.
- Duncan McCargo; Krisadawan Hongladarom (June 2004). "Contesting Isan-ness: Discourses of Politics and Identity in Northeast Thailand" (PDF). Asian Ethnicity. 5 (2): 219–234. doi:10.1080/1463136042000221898.
- Hattaway, Paul (ed.) (2004), "Isan", Peoples of the Buddhist World, William Carey Library, p. 103
- McCargo; Krisadawan (2004). "Contesting Isan-ness": 222.
- Hayashi Yukio (2003). Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao. Kyoto University Press.
- Barbara A. West (2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Facts on File. p. 449. ISBN 1438119135.
- Grabowsky: The Isan up to its Integration into the Siamese State. In: Regions and National Integration in Thailand. 1995, S. 108.
- McCargo; Krisadawan (2004). "Contesting Isan-ness": 229–232.
- Sadan, Mandy (2004), "Lao", Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, ABC-CLIO, p. 766
- Charles F. Keyes (1967). Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand. Ithaca, N.Y.: Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University.; cited in McCargo; Krisadawan (2004). "Contesting Isan-ness": 220.
- Charles F. Keyes (1997), "Cultural Diversity and National Identity in Thailand", Government policies and ethnic relations in Asia and the Pacific, MIT Press, pp. 197–231, at p. 213
- N.J. (Nick) Enfield. "How to define 'Lao', 'Thai', and 'Isan' language?: A view from linguistic science". Tai Culture. 7 (1): 62–67.
- Saowanee T. Alexander; Duncan McCargo (February 2014). "Diglossia and identity in Northeast Thailand: Linguistic, social, and political hierarchy". Journal of Sociolinguistics. 18 (1): 60–86.
- McCargo; Krisadawan (2004). "Contesting Isan-ness": 224–227.
- Brody, Alyson (2007), "From the Farm to Bangkok: Shifting Patterns of Migration in Thailand", Livelihoods at the Margins: Surviving the City, Left Coast Press, p. 130
- Goodman, Jim (2004), "People of the Isan", Cultures of the World: Thailand, Times Books International, p. 52