Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 2
Rural Thailand: Change and Continuity
Trends in Southeast Asia, No. 8. Singapore: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2016, 31pp.
Rural Thailand is a slim, 25-page publication in the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute’s Trends in Southeast Asia series. The aim of the series is to “act as a platform for serious analyses . . . [that encourage] policy makers and scholars to contemplate the diversity and dynamism of this exciting region.”
In this issue, Porphant Ouyyanont seeks to explain how and why Thailand’s agricultural sector has remained such a significant player in the Thai economy, notwithstanding half a century of rapid and deep social and economic transformation. Not only does agriculture provide work for one-third of the Thai labor force and contribute significantly to national exports and output, but “rather surprisingly, village communities did not decline to the extent that one might have expected” (p. 2). In 1990 agriculture contributed 12.4 percent of GDP and 22.6 percent of exports. In 2014, almost a quarter of a century later, the respective figures were 10.4 percent and 17.8 percent. This, then, provides the context for the author to explore the “change and continuity” theme of the publication’s subtitle.
Given that the paper is only a short exposition, it is inevitable that the discussion is generalized in tone and aggregate in formulation. This is a big-picture description of agrarian change in Thailand over the modernization period, one where ethnographic or regional detail is eschewed in the interests of marking out a wider case. The empirical material, which is secondary, and the argument are not new; what is valuable, however, is to have the argument encapsulated in this succinct and clear manner. If a policy maker or student wished quickly to get to grips with the evolution of the Thai agricultural sector over the last half century, this would be as good a place as any to start.
Part of the reason for the persistence of agriculture can be understood in terms of a shift from farming as a way of life to farming as a business and the emergence of Thailand as a significant player in the global agro-food system, from frozen prawns to industrial chicken, high-value vegetables, and canned pineapple. This is the “change” element in the subtitle, one where Thailand’s farmers have made the transition from peasants to agrarian entrepreneurs. But Porphant also states, “peasants showed a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing conditions while at the same time conserving their established patterns of behaviour and their particular mode of survival” (p. 23). This is the “continuity” part of the subtitle. The sustaining of the rural economy and village lives has been achieved by rural people embracing non-farm work and (temporary) urban living but without giving up their connections to natal homes. Households have been separated over space, but connections to the village and to land and farming remain surprisingly strong.
Asia Research Institute and Department of Geography, National University of Singapore