The Last Orientals – The Thai Sakdina System

One of the pleasures of visiting Thailand is the sense of the old you get, the various protocols and traditions from an age gone by that Thailand still enigmatically clings onto in the shadow of the postmodern skyline. Seen by tourists the girls that stand at the doors to restaurants and shops simply paid to bow to customers as they enter are something old worldly, to a local they are nothing strange, simply basic politeness. Many visitors are left wondering how within a country where anyone can don a suit and stroll through Siam Paragon, how every Thai seems to innately know their place within an almost Victorian class system of deference and aloofness.

When a tourist puts his first tentative step on terra firma and for every moment henceforth unwittingly he is immersing himself in a translucent ether of Sakdina that he will probably never become aware. Sakdina harks back to the dawn of Thailand and in the 21st century has called on all its adaptability to survive. 21st century Sakdina can be seen as many things; the amount of privilege a person deserves, seeing an expensive car drive by with a police escort leading it rudely gesturing for ordinary drivers to get out the way, the deference shown by a servant to his master or students lowering their heads when they pass a teacher by in the corridor. Sakdina is the division of the society into commoners and higher castes and the realisation that a Tuk Tuk driver, even if he saved his pennies and passed that Degree at Ramkanghang Open University, he would never be accepted in a job vacancy of government officer simply because of his low birth. Sakdina’s origins lie deep in Thai history.

Origins of Sakdina

Medieval Thailand was a sparsely populated land, remote regions separated by dense rain forests, many isolated villages were only accessible by river. For the fledgling Ayutthaya Kingdom sprawling across the centre of this domain, maintaining control over remote possessions was a constant challenge, regional lords often enjoyed far too much autonomy in the eyes of a greedy capital.

It was in the reign of King Borommatrailokkanat (1448-1488) that a formalised system was introduced designed to force even the most far-flung regions into line. King Trailok passed a series of laws that have resonated down Thai history to today and are probably the most influential royal commands issued in Thai history. Trailok introduced a governmental system which nowadays is known as the Sakdina System, but at the time were laws of Civil, Military and Provincial Hierarchies. The system itself was based upon a cultural and social order that had been practiced in much of the country at local level for centuries, Trailok made three important changes to this system, he expanded it, standardised it and centralised it.

Thai society had long been divided into two classes, the nobles and the masses, the Sakdina System clearly defined the roles within society of these two groups, how they would interact with each other and amongst themselves creating a strict social order based on the quantified worth of each individual. Rigid castes were formalised within the ranks of both nobles and commoners excluding only Chinese and women of non-noble birth who were considered without worth.

Owner & slaves

When first introduced the Sakdina System was mainly a system of social interaction, the worth of an individual determined how he should responsibly behave and the respect he was due from others. In the Thai language where the usage of pronouns and bowing are so important, a system of ranks made a simple indicator when people met as to if they were higher or lower status and how low or high to bow and how to address the other person. The system not only established how much respect a person deserved but also how much social responsibly they were supposed to take. People of higher birth were expected to live by higher standards. The system also established the relationship between noble and commoner, even free commoner, was that of master and slave, all free males 18-80 were required to submit themselves for 6-8 months to their landlord each year, service could be either civil or military.

However, the problem with a system of privilege, even one started solely to promote cordiality, is abuse. Status could be used for personal gain and corruption and this quickly began to happen with Sakdina. Abuses such as, if a person of lower worth committed a crime upon a person of higher Sakdina they would receive a sterner sentence than whereas if the situation was reversed a person of high worth would receive a lower sentence for hurting a person of low worth. Higher-ranking nobles also used their Sakdina to gain audiences with the king.

Everyone person in the country of caste was assigned a numerical rank according to their worth. With the lower ranks of commoners, it tended to be job defined ranks, however in most cases it was rank that determined what job you were eligible to do. Extensive lists were created in Trailok’s time which meticulously number ranked every job in the country. The main benefit of the system for the Kings of Ayutthaya the number of any individual was modifiable by the monarch, this gave the monarch ability to reward loyalty and punish disloyally giving him a more powerful hold over his subjects.

Sakdina literally translates to Field (Na) Power (Sakdi) and is often referred to as Thai Feudalism. One part of Sakdina often over emphasized is the land rights associated with it. The ranking number each person of caste in the country received was often referred to as ‘Rai,’ which is a land measurement. It has been suggested that a person received Rai of land equal to his Sakdina rank. So a Government Officer with a Sakdina of 225 would not only have a social standing of 225 but also be granted 225 Rai of land by the king. Sakdina numerical ranks were, Crown Prince 100,000 Rai, members of the Royal Family up to 50,000 Rai, ranks of Nobles 400-10,000 Rai depending upon position in government, Government Officials 50-400 Rai depending upon position in the administration, Craftsmen 50 Rai, Commoners 25 Rai, Slaves 5 Rai.

While the distribution of land along these lines is by far the most famous aspect of Sakdina, it may not have happened at all but rather using the word Rai to describe Sakdina may simply have been symbolic. This argument is supported by the fact areas of land were given Sakdina values and these don’t seem to correspond the real size of the land. A district may have only 10,000 Rai of actual land but be given a Sakdina value of 30,000 Rai to distribute amongst the inhabitants, suggesting the Sakdina Rai rankings were purely symbolic. That there was no land distribution is almost certain from the 16th century onwards when Chinese merchants, monks and married women of non-noble birth were given Sakdina numbers, leaving only unmarried peasant girls and Chinese labourers as without Sakdina.

A sizable proportion of the population had the ignominious status of having no Na. At first women who were not of noble birth were considered of no worth along with the sizable Chinese immigrant population. When the laws changed allowing married common women Sakdina she received it based of two factors, her husband’s Rai and her status as wife, 1st wives would receive more Rai than the 2nd and 3rd wives and so on. The wife would also gain or lose Rai depending upon the fortunes of her husband, even noble women with Rai of their own when married received Rai from their husband. Marriage to a husband of higher Rai meant she increased her Rai, a noble woman could also lower her Rai by marrying a man of lower Rai. Sakdina was not an entirely inflexible system for men either; men of lower caste could also raise their Rai through marriage to a noble woman. Also a father blessed with a beautiful daughter could to try to marry her to someone of high Rai and receive an increase in his rank in return.

Sakdina in Modern Times

Unlike in the west, Thai Feudalism didn’t die but grew stronger as it aged. In the reign of King Chulalok (1782-1809) the system was codified as a legal system called The 3-Seal Code and officially used in legal disputes to determine how much weight a person’s testimony carried, the higher the Rai, the more believable the witness’s testimony was considered in court, so a person commoner accusing a noble would have little chance.

As Thailand fell under western influence and capitalised in the 20th century this new system brought many changes to challenge the established Sakdina harmony. Business traditionally low caste became of greater importance, an educated middle class emerged, and people were able to raise their worth in society and lose it. Sakdina was a system of social stability but capitalism could be a system of fluidity. However Capitalism didn’t prove incompatible with Sakdina which was able to make concessions and accept new castes onto its hierarchy and able accept the changing of fortunes. Sakdina was also able to change capitalism, Traditionally Sakdina determined a person’s role in society by its caste system by limiting ability of lower castes to higher office, by doing this Sakdina ensured most capitalist success came to mostly to the high castes already at the top.

Sakdina was legally abolished as late as the 1932 coup, but refused to go away. Even the Fascist Dictator Phiboon Songkran Thailand’s most powerful ruler had a shot at ending it, but failed, discovering almost 800 years of history, deference and effeteness doesn’t pass easily and especially not in Thailand. There’s a saying “understand Sakdina and you understand Thailand”.

In politics Sakdina sets the relationship between Thai government and the people, not in the western idea of a civil service, serving the public, but a higher caste considering the public slaves to be governed by them. Sakdina continues in the attitude the people at the top of society should not be criticised by those lower than them and creates a culture of passive acceptance of authority everywhere, no matter how unjust or corrupt.

Often for the tourist the most visible example of Sakdina is the sex industry. It often baffles foreigners how Thais can so easily see send generation after generation of their young girls into the industry but have little moral of even nationalistic qualms over it. This is ironically contrasted by the continual scandals of University girls entering prostitution, some to fund courses, but many such as the Chulalongkorn case, simply to fund clothes shopping in Siam Squares fashion boutiques. Sakdina again provides the explanation as peasant girls are of no worth in the system but middle class university students are not behaving as their Sakdina ranks demands.

Sakdina is probably still the most powerful influence on the Thai psyche today and its legacy never more prevalent than in the Thai political crisis of the present. Nothing more than PAD’s argument for the overthrow of two democratically elected governments illustrates present day Sakdina, PAD arguing that the people who voted for the overthrown regimes were uneducated peasants not capable of judging who to vote for. The PAD argument is simply the people who voted for the Democrats may have been fewer in number but by being educated middle class were of higher caste and Sakdina so their opinion should count more.

14 responses to “The Last Orientals – The Thai Sakdina System

  1. Kitjar Sukjaidee

    This is a very good article on Sakdina!

    For another perspective, check out Jit Phumisak’s The Real Face of Thai Saktina Today. I think Jit wrote this article using the pen-name of Somsamai Srisudravarna. Although Jit Phumisak is a great Thai scholar, he is somehow forgotten by many Thai people!

    By the way, there’s even a debate on how to spell Sakdina. Is it sakTina or sakDina. There’s a difference too!

  2. paul wilding


    I actually read it as part of the research along with several other marxists. Why is it only marxists write about it? The marxist view tend to be there is no Sakdina in Thailand, this is because in marxism everything must be down to the forces of production, so any other influences on people or society must be denied. Not being a marxist I tend to disagree with this point of view.

  3. It is strange how Korea China and Japan who had even stricter “Sakdina” rules eventually did away with it over the last 100 years but Thailand is still hanging on to it.

  4. Thank you very much, Mr. Paul Wilding, for this very informative article. I have heard the term “feudalism” used, but this is my first time hearing about Sakdina. (I’m relatively new to Thailand.)

  5. Thanks for a very clear explanation of the Sakdina system -bet it starts turning up in student essays on the subject very soon! :-))

    Why is it only Marxists write about it?

    Because they seek to explain its role, and integrate it within the Marxist model, and thus prove the Marxist perspective is valid for all situations.
    In short, it is currently an anomaly and thus disturbs them!

    Similarly, Functionalists will not write about it as much, as Sakdina’s static function is both self evident and proof of the Functionalist perspective of a static society. They would rather spend their time trying and explain the obvious-and very disturbing- existence of the tempestuous post WW2 political and social changes that have swept away much of the rigidity of the Sakdina system and incorporate such within the Functionalist perspective, to preserve such.

    Like the Marxist,they only concentrate on issues that threaten the integrity of the theory. Why re-invent the wheel by debating issues that obviously support such theories?
    Leave that to the critics!

    I guess the bottom line here is that society can not be fully understood by one sociological model alone.

  6. “It is strange how Korea China and Japan who had even stricter “Sakdina” rules eventually did away with it over the last 100 years but Thailand is still hanging on to it.”

    If you look closer, the local versions of Sakdina still exist, or at least in China it is making a comeback. It is very hard to wipe off from the psyche 2000 odd years of Confucianism. Even modern day Singapore has a class system if you notice it hard enough.

  7. Thank you for the interesting article.

    To a debatable extent, fact remains that Sakdina is integrated into the Thai society today. However, it would be a mistake, in my humble opinion, to rely on it as the sole basis to the understanding of the Thai social behaviors. Sakdina by itself, or anything else for that matter, cannot interpret and explain the complexity of the Thai cultural kaleidoscope. Same goes for any society – it takes a multitude of elements to form a social and cultural understanding.

    If American coed beauties start advertising themselves for sex in websites, I’m sure it will make big splashes in the news in the US as well.

  8. Web Design Bangkok

    The system in Thailand is far more ancient than the Victorian era of deference and aloofness. But would we want it any other way?

  9. paul wilding

    Sakdina is certainly not the sole system out there or even the most important one, but it is definately a player, as the PAD example emphasises.

    A formalised system of politeness in this day and age can mean someone can bow low to another person out sakdina and then be his master in power influence in the country.

    Then again it’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes to have a system of politeness it’s just bad to have heirarchies. A country with communist sakdina where everyone is polite to one another as equals would be a good country to live in.

    As I’ve always said what Thailand needs is a large enough dose of (non-marxist) communism to level out the wealth and statuses or people.

  10. ” If you look closer, the local versions of Sakdina still exist, or at least in China it is making a comeback. It is very hard to wipe off from the psyche 2000 odd years of Confucianism. Even modern day Singapore has a class system if you notice it hard enough.”

    List some examples.

  11. Great article. One example of Sakdina in China might be the phenomenon of the “Princelings” — a fitting name too. These children of senior party cadres and officials get plumb jobs, appointments and opportunities. I once met a niece of ex-vice-president Zeng Peiyan, who runs a huge property empire. So after persecuting the landlords, the comms are now the landlords.

  12. Many examples of Sakdina in China are anecdotal. An personal example I could give is a distant relative of mine who was a former Red Guard and a Communist Party member who (through indirect partnership) has a share in a large shoe manufacturing company in Guangdong province and that was in the early 90s when China started opening up to the rest of the world. All I can say is that he is very wealthy, well respected and not a person to be “messed around with” in his native Hainan Province. Now that is Sakdina – a new powerful and untouchable class of Party members.

    Singapore has a class of “elites” who are composed of former scholars recruited into State service. These are very well paid and extremely powerful civil servants who basically run a system set up by Lee Kuan Yew and they make sure that the system is unchallenged. Dissent is not tolerated. The upper echelons of the People’s Action Party and together with Singapore’s wealthy elite is Sakdina in Singapore.

    The examples go on and on…….

  13. There will always be upper and lower classes; the US has them and so does Europe.

    Of course China has a class system based on Party membership and/or wealth.

    That is very different than a feudal class system. Because China, Japan and Korea had extreme social upheavals (mostly caused by war) things were shaken so profoundly that newer systems were able to take root.

    That hasn’t happened in Thailand; the archaic feudal system is still in place. If the masses get too unruly, a certain individual will take the stage, the masses will kowtow, and it will be back to business as usual.

  14. So, one might think sakdina exists in every society in the world? I certainly do, in one form or another. Special privleges for wealthy upper class people.