127 posts

Vol. 10, No. 1, François Molle et al.


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Intensification of Rice Cultivation in the Floodplain of the Chao Phraya Delta*

François Molle,** Chatchom Chompadist,*** and Thanawat Bremard**

*This article is dedicated to the late Professor Takaya and his colleagues from Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, who carried out seminal work on the Chao Phraya Delta in the 1970s and 1980s.
**G-Eau, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), 361, rue JF Breton, BP 5095, 34196 Montpellier Cedex 5, France
Corresponding author (Molle)’s e-mail: francois.molle[at]
***ชัชชม ชมประดิษฐ์, Royal Irrigation Department, Samsen Nakornchaisri Dusit Bangkok 10300, Thailand

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_141

Over the past 50 years rice cultivation in Asian deltas has undergone impressive intensification. In the Chao Phraya Delta, Thailand, traditional deepwater and floating rice varieties have gradually been replaced by high-yield varieties (HYVs). However, until recently a floodplain of 300,000 ha was still cultivated with traditional varieties. We analyze how these varieties came to be replaced by single/double cropping of HYVs and describe the new water regime that has been established, taking the Bang Kum drainage basin as an illustration. While the shift brought a welcome increase in rural incomes, we show how the change in water management has had serious negative cross-scale consequences that have not been considered. We end by discussing the government’s plan to alter the water regime in the area again, as part of its “monkey cheek” (flood retarding) policy. We show that rather than enhancing management flexibility and the floodplain’s buffering capacity, as it claims, this policy in fact undermines both.

Keywords: deepwater rice, rice cultivation, flood management, flood retarding basin, Chao Phraya Delta, Thailand

I Introduction

Asian deltas’ landscapes and water regimes—most notably the Pearl River, the Red River, the Mekong, and the Chao Phraya River—have undergone spectacular historical transformations (Catling 1992; Tanaka 1995; Kono 2001; Molle and Dao Thê Tuân 2006; Biggs et al. 2009; Le Thuy Ngan et al. 2018; Nguyen Van Kien et al. 2019). The state and farmers alike have incessantly and relentlessly reshaped their waterscapes through the construction of dams, dikes, canals, drains, sluice gates, and pumps in order to reduce the risk/variability and occurrence of flooding while enhancing the provision of irrigation water to fields. By doing so, they have allowed growth in cropping intensities as well as diversification away from rice to fruit and vegetables or aquaculture, in a typical Boserupian scenario of agricultural intensification (Boserup 1981).

In the Chao Phraya Delta, in central Thailand, considerable changes have taken place, particularly since the early land reclamation in the late nineteenth century and the establishment of irrigation networks in the 1960s and 1970s (Takaya 1986; Kasetsart University and ORSTOM 1996). Patterns of rice cultivation are extremely heterogeneous and combine contrasting cropping intensities (from one to three crops per year), gravity canal irrigation to semi-controlled flood regimes, and High Yield Varieties (HYVs) as well as floating rice cultivated in 3 m-deep waters (Kasetsart University and ORSTOM 1996). Around 2000 the delta had approximately 300,000 ha of flood-prone areas cultivated with “traditional” rice varieties (TVs) (Molle et al. 1999). Although well adapted to flooding, these varieties, and the associated floodwater regime, confined agriculture to a single annual crop with relatively low productivity, which constrained farming systems and farmers’ livelihoods (Kaida 1974; Takaya 1986; Molle and Thippawal 1999).

Unlike the Mekong Delta, where flood-prone areas were gradually diked and protected from heavy floods for most of the year, the Chao Phraya floodplain remained under a semi-controlled water regime whereby the rise in flood level was attuned to the growth of traditional rice varieties. The latest in-depth study of the floodplain concluded that the area was trapped in low-productivity single cropping because it was impossible for managers to prevent these low-lying areas gathering large amounts of excess water during the (late) rainy season1) (Molle et al. 1999). Shifting to HYVs grown outside the flood period would also entail developing the land and irrigation infrastructures as well as increasing water supply at times when it was already insufficient. Any change was therefore deemed unlikely.

This article offers a historical retrospective of the transformations of the Chao Phraya floodplain, building upon seminal works by Takaya Yoshikazu (1986) and Molle et al. (1999; 2001b) on the intensification of rice cultivation in the different sub-ecosystems of the delta. Transformations in the past 20 years were studied based on Landsat and Sentinel images (available through the LandViewer platform), official documents and media releases, and visits to Royal Irrigation Department (RID) regional and local offices as well as to the floodplain itself in 2017–19. After each visit, the information from farmers, officials, and satellite images was triangulated in order to make sense of transformation on the ground. The paper first provides some historical elements on early cultivation of the delta’s floodplain and then describes the gradual shift from traditional deepwater rice cultivation to HYVs, ending with a final watershed transformation around 2010, unpacking the conditions that allowed for this unexpected transformation. To do so, we take the case of the low-lying area of Bang Kum, in Ayutthaya Province. But such a transformation must also be understood through its cross-scale consequences. We show that scaling up the new water management regime associated with the shift to the whole floodplain has crucial delta-wide implications for both dry-season and floodwater management. This provides a fascinating illustration of cross-scale and systemic feedback loops that are hard to anticipate when a coherent global understanding of the water regime is lacking. Finally, we show how an in-depth understanding of the water regime can serve to critically appraise the recent (and flawed) policy of exploiting the floodplain, once again, to mitigate flood intensity in the Chao Phraya Delta and the basin as a whole.

II The Floodplain Management System

II-1 Early Cultivation in Flooded Areas of the Chao Phraya Delta

The cultivation of rice in the floodplain of the Chao Phraya was described by travelers to Siam prior to the twentieth century, often with bewilderment. Pallegoix Mgr. (1976 [1852]) observed, “this river floods and submerges the plain once a year . . . at the end of August it spreads onto the countryside and rises up to one meter and sometimes more above the bank.” All observers noted the random nature of such cultivation, which depended on the extent and duration of the flood, with Pallegoix expressing surprise that “there are some years in which the river floods only part of the plain . . . all the fields which the water cannot reach are lost.” Likewise, as early as 1688 N. Gervaise remarked:

[N]othing is feared more than drought, because it causes the price of rice to increase so much that a quantity that in a year of high rainfall would cost only six francs, in a dry year is worth twenty-nine or thirty francs.

Similar observations also prompted A. E. Stiven (1994 [1903]) to state that “the cultivators . . . are to a large extent at the mercy of the rains and floods. Excessive rain, however, does not cause so much anxiety to the farmers as excessive droughts.”

Heavy flooding necessitated the use of floating rice varieties, that is, those that elongate rapidly as the water level rises. An early mention of floating rice appears in De la Loubère (1986 [1693]):

[T]he Siamese do not reshape their land. They till it and sow it when the rains have sufficiently softened it, and they gather their harvest once the water has retreated, and sometimes while it remains and they can go only by boat. All the land that is overflowed is good for rice and it is said that the ear always rises above the water; and if the water rises a foot in twenty hours, the rice grows a foot in twenty-four hours.

Details of the flood regime in the Chao Phraya Delta prior to the construction of the Bhumibol (1964) and Sirikit (1974) Dams are not known. However, the entire delta was cultivated with TVs—a term that refers to photosensitive varieties with long stems (0.5 to 1 m for “deepwater rice” and up to 4 m for “floating rice”) and cycle durations (between five and nine months) (Tanabe 1980; Takaya 1986). A map from 1950 (Fig. 1) shows that flooding occurred annually in most of the delta, with the exception of the levees around the river and main canals, the coastal zone, and a few higher-elevation areas.



Fig. 1 Flood Zoning in the Late 1940s

Source: Thailand, Ministry of Agriculture (1950).


II-2 The Greater Chao Phraya Irrigation Scheme of the 1960s and 1970s

The water regime in the Chao Phraya Delta has been in a state of constant change over the last 60 years, in line with gradual land development and the “artificialization” of the natural landscape and hydrological regime. The introduction of the Greater Chao Phraya irrigation scheme in the 1960s and 1970s saw irrigation canals built on the natural levees bordering the waterways and water controls increased on the higher land served by these canals (Small 1972), enabling double cropping.

However, low-lying areas in the upper delta remained vulnerable to flooding caused by a combination of excess flow from the river system, streams originating on the sides of the delta, return flows from higher irrigated land, and local rainfall. To better regulate the flood pattern in terms of height and duration, dikes were built around the (lower) part of these “drainage boxes” (Molle et al. 1999) with regulated outlets to the rivers. (Fig. 2 shows the general structure of a drainage box.) In the 1970s, most of the floodways through which the Chao Phraya River could spread into low-lying areas were gated and closed. Following the floods of 1975, for example, the embankments were raised 50 cm above the flood level. By the late 1980s, around 500,000 ha of traditional rice varieties were still cultivated in the Chao Phraya Delta (Puckridge et al. 2000).



Fig. 2 Schematic Diagram of a Drainage Box

Source: Molle et al. (1999).


Thus, a system of 20 main drainage boxes was gradually constructed and improved in the upper delta. (Fig. 3 shows the name and main outlet of each of these boxes.) It allows water to accumulate within the boxes to a suitable height and retains it at that level until the rice ripens, at which point it is drained for harvesting. This takes place in December or January, depending on the box, once the water level in the river system outside the boxes has subsided, allowing water to be drained by gravity. The drainage rate depends on the box (topography, design of outlet sluices, rice variety, etc.). If there is a single variety, quick drainage is required for harvesting. Where there are several, those growing lower down usually need water for a few days longer and the drainage rate is slower. The rate also depends on downstream conditions in the river. These are affected by the inflow into the delta and the drainage of other boxes. Fig. 4 shows the drainage curves of the three regulators located on Khlong Bang Phra Khru draining the Bang Kum box following the opening of the gates around December 12. We see that the upstream regulators raise the water level, delaying the drainage of those farther downstream.2)



Fig. 3 Main Drainage Boxes in the Chao Phraya Delta

Source: adapted from Molle et al. (1999).



Fig. 4 Drainage of the Bang Kum Box 1994–95 (Three Outlets)


While boxes allow a degree of control, risk is not fully eliminated. High inflow can exceed the drainage capacity of the boxes, leading water to rise above normal levels and submerging some deepwater rice varieties. If the inflow is too weak, it can cause the water level to rise too slowly or not high enough. A delay in draining the box can force farmers to harvest their rice by boat. Higher land tends not to flood and can be irrigated by canals and cultivated with HYVs. Depending on the year, location, and water availability it can even be double-cropped.

III The Wholesale Shift from Traditional Rice Varieties to HYVs

III-1 The First Wave of Change

The construction of the Bhumibol and Sirikit Dams, as well as the development of smaller dams and diversion works in the upper and middle sections of the Chao Phraya basin, decreased the intensity of flooding (see Molle et al. 2001a; Tebakari et al. 2003). This first manifested itself in the lower delta, where flooding was on average far less severe. Farmers in the upper half of the West Bank (Chao Chet Bang Yihon and Phraya Banlue Projects) found that they could afford to partly protect their fields from flooding by building dikes. Raised road embankments also helped to polder fields from the many waterways that crisscross the West Bank (Takaya 1986; JICA 1992). Where the risk was too high, calendars would be shifted in order to cultivate before and after the flood period. In the West Bank, but also in the East Bank, these changes led to the disappearance of TVs (Tanabe 1980). The availability of water during the dry season (from the Chao Phraya Dam and pumping from adjacent rivers) enabled farmers not only to shift to more productive HYVs but also to double-crop their fields, with substantial economic gains.

In the late 1980s improved water control in the Mae Klong basin3) also reduced flooding along the Song Phi Nong River, which marks the divide between the Mae Klong alluvial fan and the paddy fields of Suphan Buri to the west of the Chao Phraya Delta. While Song Phi Nong used to be famous for its semi-aquatic lifestyle, with locals living on the first floor of their houses and using boats during the flood period (see Sumet 1988), farmers found that the reduction in flooding meant they could grow one HYV before the flood and another after, as in the West Bank.

From the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s, several drainage boxes of the upper delta underwent similar changes in their regulation (Molle and Jesda 1998). First, the level was reduced in the flood period as the intensity of flooding appeared to lessen, due to an overall decline in inflow and the development of intermediate cross-regulators on the boxes’ main drains that allowed greater, stepwise control of the water. The development of on-farm infrastructure on the high lands gave better access to irrigation water from canals, and the spread of individual axial pumps allowed farmers to tap low water from canals, drains, and rivers, facilitating the cultivation of HYVs, which in turn required a lower water level in the box (Molle et al. 2001a).

Second, the target water level at the end of the draining of the box and the beginning of the dry season was increased. As fishing was an important complement to local livelihoods, in the past the boxes were fully drained in order to catch fish more easily in the depressions. However, the target regulation level was raised as dikes were built along both sides of the box main drains, where the remaining water could be stored for use in gardening in the villages or the cultivation of nearby fields, and also perhaps as a result of reduced interest in fishing. Changes in regulation were quite substantial in boxes such as Lam Chuad (from 4 m to 5.5 m), Watmanee (2.3 m to 4.5 m), and Sala Deng (2.5 m to 3 m) (Molle et al. 1999).

But shifting from TVs to the double cropping of HYVs on higher land that is no longer flooded comes with two preconditions: first, the terrain must be leveled and supplied by a water distribution network, where previously floodwater was simply spread across uneven land. This on-farm investment—shouldered by farmers—was facilitated by the ever-cheaper cost of earth-moving machinery and service. Second, irrigation water must be provided by the RID, especially for the second (post-flood) crop that will grow in the dry season, with hardly any rainfall, although in some boxes farmers resort primarily to local resources, including rivers. Water supply depends on the capacity/willingness of the RID to provide water, but farmers have understood that starting cultivation as soon as possible after the flood (sometimes even draining their individual plot by pumping in order to start land preparation early) has two advantages. First, they benefit from the residual soil wetness and water stored in the canals; and second, it compels the RID to supply them with water in the latter stages of cultivation, as the sight of drying paddy fields in media releases is considered unpalatable.

III-2 The Conversion of Drainage Boxes

Despite the transformations discussed above and the overall decrease in the regulated water level in the boxes, by the turn of the century TVs in the delta still occupied around 300,000 ha (Molle et al. 1999). It was, then, hardly envisioned that this remaining flooded land could be converted to HYV double cropping. On the one hand, excess water (from local rainfall, lateral drains entering the delta, return flows from irrigated areas) had to go somewhere, and when the rivers rose to high levels they could not be drained out of the boxes (in the absence of pump stations). On the other hand, the RID was loath to see the demand for dry-season water increase when the supply could irrigate, on average, only around half the delta (Molle et al. 2001a). Yet, despite these limitations, most boxes saw their rice patterns transformed around 2010.4) Below, this is illustrated by the case of the Bang Kum drainage box (BKB).

The BKB covers around 83,000 rai, of which 38,000 belong to the Roeng Rang Project and 45,000 to the Kok Katiem Project. Administratively the BKB comprises 22 tambon (subdistricts) belonging to three provinces (Lop Buri, Ayutthaya, and Saraburi) (RID 2018) (see Fig. 5). Ninety percent of the land is used for rice and the rest for taro, other crops, fishponds, small-scale factories, government buildings, temples, and residential areas (RID 2010). The land elevation in the BKB averages 2.9 m (above mean sea level), varying between +2.7 m and +3.2 m (RID 2010).



Fig. 5 Bang Kum Drainage Box (BKB), with Regulated Outlets (Round Circles Points)

Source: RID (2018).


At least in the BKB’s lower parts, farmers have been limited by the floodwater regime. Although this regime was regulated, as described above, and therefore afforded a degree of predictability and stabilization of production, yields remained low, at an average of 35 thang (0.35 tons) per rai. The main varieties included the Khao Tah Heng and Pin Kaew 56 (floating rice) varieties (Molle et al. 1999). Farming system analysis in the village of Ban Nong Mon (Molle et al. 2001b) in the heart of the box in 2000 revealed in particular low rice productivity and limited diversification, as well as many absent villagers renting their land to relatives or other villagers, fewer children (due to a lack of economic prospects), a high rate of emigration, and significant off-farm income. A comparison with two other villages, one in Lop Buri Province and the other in Suphan Buri Province, with cropping intensities of 1.45 and 2.9 respectively, showed that the average net income of 822 baht/rai observed in Bang Kum was much lower than the values observed in the other two villages, 2,560 baht/rai and 7,195 baht/rai respectively. Although this stark per rai productivity gap was partly bridged at the household level because Bang Kum had smaller families, larger farms, and a higher reliance on non-cropping activities, off-farm work, and remittances, the per capita income in Suphan Buri remained twice as high as in Bang Kum (yet remarkably far from the initial ratio in land productivity, which was close to 8). This confirmed that environmental constraints to intensification resulted in lower household incomes.

In the late 1990s the RID and provincial services attempted to develop secondary local water resources so farmers could grow a second crop of rice in the dry season, just after harvesting. They excavated ponds surrounded by huge dikes in the lower part of the boxes, but this did not lead to double cropping as the second crop faced three obstacles (Wuttitchai 2000): the limited time window (January to April), which could be reduced by a late flood recession; the need to pump water over high dikes (incurring costs); and the need for collective action (farmers starting alone would see their crops devastated by rats, which had little to feed on in the dry season).

As in the cases of the Upper West Bank and Phak Hai Project, the overall average decline in floodwater inflow during the rainy season became increasingly evident in the BKB, where the target water level was reduced from 4.8 m to 4.5 m in the early 1990s, allowing higher plots to avoid flooding and grow HYVs with water from irrigation canals. In 1995 two farmers from Ban Nong Mon in the BKB attempted dry-season cropping of HYVs but had their fields overrun by rats, followed by flooding. A farmer leader’s attempt at dry-season cropping met with success in 1997—but his fields were located on the higher fringe of the BKB, so he could get irrigation water from the canal.

Collective action was initiated in the 2000s toward a radical, box-wide change in water regulation and rice-cropping patterns. In 2002 a group of farmers in the lower BKB invested 2.8 million baht of their own savings to dig nine ditches with parallel dirt roads, and collectively organized the water management (RID 2010). Their initiative was rewarded with 22.5 million baht from a bumper rice crop that year. The success led them to form a Water User Group consisting of 84 members with 4,700 rai. They invited government agencies from various sectors to discuss abandoning flood-season rice cropping of TVs in favor of the double cropping of HYVs—one crop before the flood and a second after it.5) The RID backed the initiative. Pressure for change mounted when rice cropping became extremely attractive, as the government took to subsidizing production. In 2008–13 the average farm gate price reached 9.6 baht/kilo against a commonplace value of 6–7 baht (OAE, various years).6) If we take the total cost of production of one rai of HYV at 3,600 baht (Stuart et al. 2018) and a yield of 0.85 tons, this hike actually represents an increase in net income by a factor of 2.4.

Neighboring farmers in one area would come together to build a channel to their plots. However, on land that sloped gently toward the central drain, higher plots were hard to reach. Farmers would either have to build two or more consecutive reaches, pumping water from the lower to the higher in stages, or raise the water level from below by operating the gate accordingly. But the latter would cause low-lying plots near the drain to flood, and indeed conflict arose between the owners of low- and high-lying plots (RID 2018, 36–37). Low-lying plots were surrounded with higher bunds to allow a target water level in the box of +3 m so water could penetrate inland through networks of ditches dug by farmers. In order to reach higher land, the target level was gradually increased to +3.2 m once lowland farmers had improved their plot bunds and roads and dikes had been raised and strengthened.

The draining of the box was also contentious, as growers of TVs harvested their crops in late December/January, thereby sometimes delaying the sowing period for the farmers of HYV rice to late January or mid-February. The RID attempted to resolve disputes by holding meetings for farmers to convince the TV growers of the benefits of shifting to two HYV crops and “do[ing] away with old farming habits” (RID 2010, 3–10). It was finally agreed, and in 2010 the RID altered the water regime, replicating what had just occurred in the Watmanee box in the same Kok Katiem Project.

The shift to double cropping entailed a redefinition of the flood-management regime as it had been practiced over previous decades. During the flood period the BKB would now be drained as allowed by the water level in the downstream Khlong Bang Phra Khru (Fig. 5). When the level rose in that canal (which connects the Lop Buri and Pasak Rivers and therefore reflects their respective water levels and flow conditions), the gates would be closed and water would accumulate in the box. There would be no specific attempt to store water, but—as during Phase II—if need be, water could be stored up to 4.5–4.8 m without disrupting local life. As soon as river levels downstream allowed, the gates would be reopened and water drained out of the box. Some years this could be done as early as November, allowing the post-flood crop to be established early, thus maximizing the chances of a second crop the following spring.

However attractive on paper, the new dynamic was not without its limitations, as mentioned earlier with regard to higher-elevation land. TVs were cultivated on rough and uneven ground that was ploughed and sown only after the first rains, usually in April or May. Neither the early rain-fed growth nor the later flooded stages required particular land leveling. But the cultivation of HYVs required investment in farm infrastructure, such as that undertaken by the 84 farmers of the BKB in 2002. This included access roads, plot leveling, and bunds and a network of channels to convey water to inland plots from the low-lying drains and depressions where it was stored.

Despite these investments, eased by the availability of machinery or the possibility of using their four-wheel tractors to grade the land, farmers quickly harvested the benefits of the transformation. From a low benefit estimated at around 1,400 baht/rai for traditional varieties, the double cropping of HYVs yielded7) the handsome sum of 9,100 baht/rai to those who managed to double-crop (for a price of 9.6 baht/ton).

III-3 The “Monkey Cheek” Project and the Requalification of Flood Management

On September 20, 2016 Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Chatchai Sarikulya endorsed—as earlier governments had—the “monkey cheek” (kaem ling) policy, by embracing the use of low-lying land as a buffer at times of flooding (Thanaporn 2018). The move was likely prompted by a very late rice harvest in 2016, which prevented the boxes from being used and shifted the excess flow to the main stem of the Chao Phraya River, damaging houses in Ayutthaya (Bangkok Post, October 11, 2016; RID 2016). Gen. Chatchai Sarikulya issued a ruling that established a cropping calendar intended to accelerate crop establishment and harvesting in 13 areas, termed “monkey cheeks,” in the Chao Phraya basin, including the BKB.8) The new cropping pattern was trialed in 2017, and on May 1 the RID began distributing water for rice cultivation in the 12 monkey cheeks located in the delta (1.15 million rai). The plots were harvested in August and early September before the land was purposely flooded (officially on September 15) so as to store water in line with the new policy. Once filled, the drainage boxes were drained at the beginning of December (officially on December 1).

The shift from the management regime of the early 2010s brought several changes. While still aimed at enabling two crops of rice, it required more formal planning of the cropping calendars within the box so that cultivation (before September 15) and flood mitigation (after September 15) did not conflict. It also required the box to be filled to its full capacity and enforced a no-cultivation period of 2.5 months to allow for fishing. In exchange, the RID committed to sending water in both early May (so harvesting could take place before the flood) and the dry season (from the beginning of November once the flood had receded), while farmers would be compensated if their crops were damaged by an early flood in August.

IV Management and Technical Complexities of Rice-Water Relationship

The changes described in the preceding section allow us to identify four main phases in the development and management of the floodplain. These are summarized in Table 1. Each of these phases corresponds to a major shift in the water management regime. The water regime established around 2010 (Phase III), briefly described above, allowed a spectacular shift from one TV to one or, increasingly often,9) two HYVs. However, the new regime was complicated by a dependence on hydrological conditions both locally and in the upstream areas where the flows that traverse the delta originate. Enhancing local benefits made it necessary to reshuffle the water regime, but this created disbenefits in other parts of the delta. We first examine how such negative externalities were created and later turn to briefly analyzing the most recent promotion of the kaem ling policy (Phase IV) (subsection IV-3).


Table 1 Main Phases in Floodplain Management



IV-1 Juggling Water and Time

Under optimal conditions, that is, in a year not hampered by excessive flooding in the wet season or water shortage in the dry season, this new regime (Phase III) in the BKB could be described as follows: during the potential flood period, typically mid-September to mid-November, water would either be drained or stored when downstream river conditions did not allow drainage. There was no need to store a specific amount of water above that required for the next cultivation season thanks to that stored in the drain, at a set level of around 3.2 m above mean sea level. The duration of the flood period in the BKB depended on a combination of local rainfall, sideflows, and possible excess water in the delta (relieved by diverting water to drainage boxes10)), as well as whether the water levels farther down the river needed the BKB outlets to be fully closed.

As the water receded, sometime in mid-November to December,11) the box would be partially emptied. Farmers would then begin preparing the land without delay on soil still saturated with water, which facilitated ploughing and puddling, and saving the water needed to soak the soil before these operations.12)

However, with rice gradually established across the BKB and irrigated with water stored between the dikes of the main drains, the available levels quickly declined. The extent to which crops can be established (particularly on higher ground, far from the central drain), and the time taken for this, thus depend on additional supply, which can come from several sources (Fig. 6):



Fig. 6 Inflows to the BKB

Source: Molle et al. (1999).


1. Released from Chai Nat-Pasak feeder canal by the RID through secondary canals or drains to supply the BKB

2. Pumped from the Lop Buri River and Khlong Bang Phra Khru to meet irrigation needs, including permanent pumps set up by subdistricts or farmers themselves, and mobile RID pumps in case of crisis

3. Local storage either in excavated natural ponds (bung) or dug reservoirs, both of which can be fairly large in certain boxes, such as Lam Chuad and Wat Ulom. In the BKB the army has recently excavated a buffer reservoir with local funding.

4. Return flow from the higher areas in the Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects that receive canal water and irrigate by gravity (from both canal tail-ends and the drainage system), but these areas generally receive water later (and may be allocated very limited water, depending on the year).

A major consequence of the new regime that must be emphasized is that by allowing farmers in the box to forego their TV and cultivate after the flood recedes, the RID has implicitly put itself in the position of having to ensure supply to the area once local resources are exhausted. Since the overall availability of water—at the basin or delta level—is very limited in the dry season, and although the BKB partly grows its post-flood crop based on local water resources, this creates added competition between upstream highland farmers (who receive water by gravity through the canal system) and lowland farmers in the box.

Indeed, the optimistic planting of rice after the flood can be confronted by a lack of water toward the middle or end of the cycle. This leads to desperate measures on the part of farmers, as in the BKB in 2015, when 40 pumps were pooled to extract water from the bottom of the BKB main drain13) (see Fig. 7), compelling the RID to find ways to support paddy fields in want of water so as to avoid damaging media coverage of withering crops. (This included pumping water from the Lop Buri River and Khlong Bang Phra Khru [see Fig. 5] with mobile pumps and allowing extra releases from the Chao Phraya Dam.) But losses in yield are not always preventable: in March 2016, 400,000 rai were damaged in the delta.14)



Fig. 7 Farmers Collectively Pumping the Remaining Water in the BKB Main Drain (2015) (Khun Somboon, Ban Nong Mon)


Therefore, in 2019 and again in 2020, low or uncertain stocks led the RID to announce at the beginning of the year that farmers should not cultivate dry-season crops, as the water supply could not be assured. The move was intended to renounce responsibility and prevent any criticism of the RID should crops fail. Yet, despite the warnings there were reduced yields and even crop loss, demonstrating that in practice it is not possible to prevent farmers from embarking on cultivation if they have access to water.

Around three to four months after sowing, depending on the rice variety used and access to water,15) fields in the box are drained in order to allow mechanical harvesters to operate. Farmers in the higher parts of the box, who have to pump water from below to irrigate (unless it reaches them from above, through the canal system), now benefit from their plot’s position and drain by gravity. Conversely, farmers on lower land—below the regulation level of 3.2 m—who can get water from the main drain into their plot by gravity sometimes need to pump water out. All such operations are carried out using mobile axial pumps generally powered by two-wheel tractors. It is possible for managers to lower the regulation level (say from 3.2 m to 1.5 m in a week) so all the fields can be drained by gravity, including the lowest. Once this is done, in a matter of days the gates are closed again to allow the water level to recover so that farmers can begin their second crop.

In May, therefore, farmers are eager to embark on a second HYV crop. However, this also may face water shortages, since there is little flow from upstream plots and the rainy season water delivery is only slowly beginning in the basin; the latter can be delayed if rainfall is late and upstream storage dams are depleted. In addition, Roeng Rang Project is fourth in line on the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal, and it takes time before it can receive and divert its full share. Water supply can be enhanced by two natural sources, but these are unpredictable:

5. Local rainfall, which can vary widely at the beginning of the rainy season

6. Rainfall in the rain-fed areas of Saraburi and Lop Buri Provinces, which generates sideflows that traverse the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal through siphons and then the Kok Katiem and Roeng Rang Projects to feed their drainage system and the BKB

As the rainy season unfolds, more water is diverted to both the highlands and the box, the latter also benefiting from the return flow of the former (sources 1 and 4 above). Irregularity in the total supply combined with the nature of the plot (topography, elevation, distance from water sources, etc.) governs two things: whether a particular farmer in the box decides to grow a second crop or not, and when he will be able to do so. Lowland farmers facing limited water supply in April–May may wait for supply to increase later in the rainy season, but the issue then is timing: those sowing their crop, say, at the beginning of June would have to harvest it after mid-September and face the risk of flooding, meaning that some forego cultivation. This creates the counterintuitive scenario of some farmers in the BKB no longer growing rice in the rainy season (Fig. 8).



Fig. 8 Cropping Calendars in the BKB and the Issues Faced (Phase IIII)


Storage is almost always low by the end of the dry season. Indeed, in April 2019 the deputy PM revealed that 23 large reservoirs were below 50 percent of their total water capacity due to releases made to “meet the high water demands in the [Chao Phraya] basin during the rest of the dry season” (Pratch 2019). And the situation can be dramatic if dam storage is extremely low. It can severely delay the establishment of the main crop, meaning the crop cannot be fully harvested if floods arrive in October (or earlier). This was precisely the case in 2016, which followed a year of very limited inflow in 2015 compounded by excessive releases in the dry season and minimal rainfall and runoff at the beginning of the rainy season. By the end of September 750,000 rai had not yet been harvested,16) and the RID delayed the sending of excess water to drainage boxes, creating tension with the governor of Ayutthaya, who demanded that pressure be relieved for those living outside the dikes.17)

Served by gravity irrigation canals, higher land faces a different set of constraints and a different calendar. Here farmers usually start rainy-season cultivation in June or even later, harvest after the main rainy period, and await supply from the RID in January or later to grow a second crop.18) This crop is therefore conditional upon water availability in the delta and Chao Phraya basin.19) Return flow benefiting BKB farmers also depends on the extent and timing of double cropping upstream. Such contingencies can be alleviated by growing shorter-term rice varieties (between 85 and 105 days) or exploiting local reserves (private or public ponds and reservoirs). But a 2,000-rai area located at the end of Kok Katiem’s Canal 21, which follows the left bank of the Lop Buri River and ends up in the BKB, illustrates the issues. The downstream fields receive water very late in the dry season (as upstream farms abstract water from the canal first and also because priority is given to BKB lowlanders), and therefore they are commonly not harvested until the end of June. Since the risk of flooding is high, farmers here prefer to use traditional varieties (deepwater rice) for the ensuing wet season. Hence, the shift from TV to HYV in the lowlands, and the priority lowlands were given, limited the supply and delayed delivery to an area that had to go back to TV in the rainy season!

This detailed description of the constraints on growing two crops in the BKB (summarized in Fig. 8) serves to show that intensification (a shift from TV to HYV and from one to two crops) comes with a higher risk in a context where the control of water flows remains partial.

IV-2 Impact of Phase III on Land and Water Resource Use

The shift in rice cultivation observed in the BKB brought a radical leap in land productivity. The average output per hectare grew from 1–2 tons in the 1990s to up to 10 tons where two crops could be grown. However, this came at the cost of more chemicals sprayed on fields that had once received only natural silt. On the other hand, the creation of an almost permanent wetland in the box bottom boosted fish stocks and attracted a spectacularly high number of birds that preyed on fish.

In the Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects the shift has substantially increased the efficiency of water use since return flows from higher land are collected by the drainage system and reused in the BKB. Gates remain closed most of the year, and this is particularly clear in the dry season, when no water is lost (with even some inflow gathered at high tide). In the rainy season water efficiency is less of an issue since natural runoff generally exceeds agricultural demand. Reservoirs excavated in the box capture some wet-season water to be used during the dry season and therefore also raise water use efficiency.

Effective communication increases efficiency too. The RID organizes one or two meetings a year (attended by 200–300 farmers from eight amphoe/districts) in Don Phut, in the middle of the BKB, to agree on cropping calendars and regulatory targets. RID staff also visit local authorities to coordinate the communication of the new water management approach to communities. This includes the use of the mobile phone application Line, via which farmers are informed of the daily water level at key locations.20)

Since the RID gave all farmers in the Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects the opportunity to double-crop, they have been able to increase their income (see subsection III-2). However, at a wider level, that of the basin, this agricultural intensification is highly problematic. By allowing the shift in farming practices across the whole delta’s floodplain, the RID substantially increased the overall water demand in the dry season. With more diversions to irrigation projects and no return flow to the river system, less water is available to sustain the river flow and, eventually, the Chao Phraya River at its estuary.21) The growing abstraction of water from Khlong Bang Phra Khru and the Lop Buri River (and elsewhere from the Noi and Tha Chin Rivers) has also reduced river flows. All this worsens the chronic problem of saline water intrusion that periodically affects the lower delta in dry years (and threatens, for example, durian and other fruit orchards in Nonthaburi and even the main intake of Bangkok’s domestic water supply).22)

The shift also has mixed implications for flood management. On the one hand the filling of the box, which is left to depend on hydrological conditions, represents an optimal kaem ling flood management strategy, with boxes filled as late as possible to absorb any forthcoming excess. On the other hand, though, the BKB can now be under cultivation at a time (say, late September) when (in Phase II management) the box would already be absorbing early excess water that would gradually flood and sustain traditional varieties. The late presence of crops in the BKB is due to the increased staggering of rice cropping, as farmers try to adapt two crops to an uncertain water supply environment (the six sources identified above) while sharing water at the local level (Fig. 8). In other words, farmers cannot establish their crop at the same time because of the time needed to distribute water spatially.

The limited ability to absorb early water excesses has both local and broader consequences. Since no excess water can be sent to the BKB (or other boxes) before crops are harvested, the RID is obliged to block incoming sideflows by closing the siphons that traverse the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal. This causes flooding along the eastern embankment, which must then be dealt with through pumping ponding water into the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal itself. Across the delta the late cultivation of the boxes prevents the RID from making use of them and concentrates excess flow in rivers, which is problematic for people residing outside of the dikes, as illustrated in Ayutthaya in 2016 (described above). In summary, when scaled up to the level of the delta the local reshuffling of the water regime in the different boxes generates externalities at other scales.

IV-3 Impact of the Kaem Ling Policy in Ayutthaya (Phase IV)

The early flooding in Ayutthaya led the government to float a policy in late 2016 seeking to establish a fixed calendar to prevent late harvesting in drainage boxes. However, the complexity of the situation described above, with multiple cropping calendars varying in space and time according (mainly) to access to a diversity of (also varying) water resources, cannot be simplified and made uniform without a loss of flexibility and negative consequences.

The regulation shift achieved in the late 2000s (Phase II) saw improvements in flood management. Indeed, keeping the drainage boxes as empty as possible by releasing water at every opportunity maximizes their buffering capacity. This added capacity varies greatly since it depends on whether the boxes are filled naturally or from diverting irrigation canals—a complex and fluctuating process. The new policy (Phase IV) came with four potential negative impacts.

The first was that buffering capacity in the boxes was reduced with the introduction of the “Release water in plots, release fishes in lowlands” project23) by the governor of Ayutthaya in association with the Department of Fisheries, the RID, and the MOAC. The new policy would enforce a fixed calendar, whereby farmers would have to harvest before September 15 (or a similar date) so that boxes could be filled, but then the RID would start filling them even when it was not necessary. This would reduce the buffering capacity that could be needed later in October, depending on future hydrological events and patterns.

Second, the policy of filling the boxes to capacity actually reverts to the water management mode of the 1990s (Phase II), except that no rice is now cultivated in the boxes during the flood period. The process brings in fertilizing silt, kills weeds, and allows fish to grow—and villagers to catch them—benefits emphasized by the local authorities of Ayutthaya. Records show that in four of the past five years the water level inside the BKB peaked above 4 m, despite the policy of minimizing the levels in the boxes. This means that the control of weeds and the inflow of silt are partially achieved by the Phase III management. Filling the boxes to capacity, whether necessary or not, also reduces the average buffer capacity. This is ironic since the policy is promoted under the kaem ling banner as a flood-mitigation strategy.

Third, the policy is to keep water in the boxes for 2.5 months. While this extension enhances fish production, it may delay the emptying of the boxes and therefore the establishment of the post-flood crop or prevent the cultivation of a second HYV crop in the box altogether.

Fourth, as well as flood management the policy promotes double cropping, thereby increasing the demand for water in the dry season. Phase III made double cropping possible, but it was mostly left to farmers to find the water to grow the post-flood crop (although the RID was at times forced to supply some to avert crop loss). In a bid to gain farmers’ acceptance, however, the new policy includes priority water supply to the farmers in the kaem ling boxes in both the dry and early wet seasons, ensuring that they can harvest on time (mid-September). This increases water demand as well as encourages farmer complaints when the promised water is not delivered.

Another incentive included in the policy is the government’s commitment to compensating farmers if early flooding damages their crop, on the condition that they register their land. The outcome of this, according to one local official, is that farmers have been tempted to register far larger cropping areas than they actually have.

It remains unclear whether this policy has in fact been implemented in the BKB as it has in the boxes near Ayutthaya (Bang Bal and Phak Hai Projects) and Bang Rakam in Phitsanulok, which are monitored more closely and may have a more direct impact on reducing water levels in the Chao Phraya River. Local residents appear unconcerned, explaining in particular that Ayutthaya’s governor cannot impose the policy here because half of the BKB lies in Lop Buri Province.

V Discussion and Conclusion

The history of rice intensification over the past three decades in the floodplain of the Chao Phraya Delta in general, and the Bang Kum box in particular, shows how a trend that began in the late 1980s and 1990s in the less flooded areas of the lower delta took hold across the delta. The shift from one TV to the single/double cropping of HYVs was made technically possible by several factors, ranging from ever-increasing storage and diversion capacity in the upper Chao Phraya basin (reducing the average flood pattern24)), increased availability of secondary sources (drains and ponds in low-lying areas, excavated reservoirs, pumping from rivers, etc.), and elevated roads to technological advances (mechanized farm processes, the availability of short-cycle rice varieties, etc.) (see Molle et al. 1999; 2001a).

But the shift also indirectly resulted from the government’s policy to support rice prices (Ricks 2018). The delta’s floodplain had long been known for its aging farmers, smaller families, and high rates of tenancy (near Ayutthaya) (see Molle and Thippawal 1999), and a comparison of farming systems in three areas with contrasting cropping intensities in 2000 showed that low rice incomes forced villagers to migrate and/or work off-farm (Molle et al. 2001b). It is, therefore, understandable that windfall profits from rice due to a rise in prices encouraged farmers to act collectively and to coordinate with the RID to implement a full-fledged change in water management. Farmers who could, after investments in on-farm infrastructure, achieve a double cropping of HYVs could multiply their rice income more than sixfold. Although no in-depth research was conducted in the BKB after the changes, the authors’ two visits to Ban Nong Mon in 2018 provided some striking visual hints of the new wealth of the village since the survey conducted 20 years earlier. Water use efficiency has also substantially increased in the projects thanks to local storage and the recycling of return flows.

It is not fully clear why the RID abandoned its policy to discourage the expansion of dry-season water demand. One reason might be that the 1987–2000 period, when Phase II management prevailed, was shown in retrospect to be a period with low dry-season water availability. In contrast, the 2000–11 period can be considered “wet”: the amount of water released by the Bhumibol and Sirikit Dams between November and April (the dry season) in the 2007–11 period, during which prices were raised, was 8.5 billion m3, against 6.6 billion m3 for a median year before 2000 (Molle et al. 2001a). During the same period, the average area irrigated in the dry season in the delta was 5.8 million rai, versus 3.1 million rai during the 1900s (OAE, various years). Another reason is that changes in management were negotiated largely at the project level, without considering wider implications at the delta or basin level. If such considerations were mentioned, they were probably pushed aside in the face of social and political pressure in favor of expanding rice cultivation.

The most fascinating finding of this research is perhaps the interconnectedness of diverse areas through the water regime, and the cross-scale impacts of changing water distribution and cropping patterns. Water availability depends on a number of factors, some natural (rainfall—both local and in the upper basin—sideflows, dam inflow) and some manageable (dam releases, scheduling, allocation, etc.). The combination of these depends on and also shapes complex and fluctuating hydrological patterns. Farmers set their crop calendars by weighing risk and uncertainty and taking into account local conditions (topography, equipment, mix of accessible or potential water sources, price of rice, etc.). But particular choices at the local level, when combined, have implications for water allocation and flood management at the delta/basin level. Notwithstanding the local benefits of the broad shift to double cropping, the floodplain of the delta has experienced some macro-level negative impacts.

The first is increased water demand in the dry season that results in competition over the resource and reduced return flow to the river system. As we have seen, this competition occurs between uplanders and lowlanders but also at a wider scale, since water allocation in the dry season resembles a zero-sum game (Molle et al. 2001a). The spread of dry-season cropping over the 300,000 ha of floodplain therefore means that the water used to fuel this expansion has to come from somewhere else: there will be more saline intrusion into the Chao Phraya and Tha Chin Rivers, areas elsewhere in the basin will be deprived of water, groundwater elsewhere will be increasingly depleted, or more water will be released from the dams. This last outcome may reflect increased water storage, like in the 2000s, but it can also reflect carelessness: more water is released during the dry season, at the cost of increased risk in case dams do not fill up again quickly at the beginning of the ensuing rainy season. This is what was observed in 2019 and 2020, for example.

The second cross-scale disturbance brought about by the shift to HYVs was the constraint not to flood the drainage boxes before they were harvested. This loss of flexibility in flood management resulted in unusual early flooding near Ayutthaya and flooding along the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal, as sideflows could not be allowed into the delta.

The policy implemented in 2017 was justified by its aim of avoiding such problems and restoring a degree of predictability to cropping calendars. Yet it seems to have been devised without a full understanding of water management in the delta’s floodplain. The introduction of fixed calendars would reduce management capacity, add rigidity where flexibility was required, and shift the risk from farmers (who adjust to the water regime) to the RID (which committed to supply them). Ironically, the policy was devised under the banner of the monkey cheek policy while actually undermining an existing system that was close to an optimal monkey cheek strategy. This complexity is not easily comprehended, which is why a form of adaptive management that favors flexibility and risk-taking at the farm level is preferable to a top-down approach that attempts to freeze crop calendars within a fluctuating and unpredictable environment. Although the strategy has been implemented in Bang Rakam, near Sukhothai, and in other drainage boxes of the delta, it seems that its practical implementation in the BKB, and possibly elsewhere, will prove unviable.

Accepted: September 4, 2020


The first author would like to warmly thank the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, for the scholarship extended to him and during which this paper has been written.


Apinya Wipatayotin; and Sunthorn Pongpao. 2016. Province, Irrigation Dept at Odds over Floods: Ayutthaya Is Urging “Immediate Action.” Bangkok Post, September 27., accessed March 1, 2020.

Bangkok Post. 2016. Farmers Brace as River Water Diverted to Farms to Ease Floods. October 11., accessed March 1, 2020.

Biggs, David; Miller, Fiona; Chu Thai Hoanh; and Molle, François. 2009. The Delta Machine: Water Management in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. In Contested Waterscapes in the Mekong Region: Hydropower, Livelihoods and Governance, edited by François Molle, Tira Foran, and Mira Käkönen, pp. 203–225. London: Earthscan.

Boserup, Ester. 1981. Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long-Term Trends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Catling, David. 1992. Rice in Deep Water. London: International Rice Research Institute and Macmillan Press.

Chularat Saengpassa. 2016. Water Crisis Turns Acute. The Nation. March 21., accessed March 1, 2020.

De la Loubère, Simon. 1986 [1693]. A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam. Bangkok: White Lotus.

Gervaise, Nicolas. 1989 [1688]. The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam. Bangkok: White Lotus.

JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). 1992. Study on the West Bank of the Lower Chao Phraya Delta. Bangkok: JICA.

Kaida Yoshihiro. 1974. Pioneer Settlements and Water Control Development on the West Bank of the Lower Chao Phraya Delta: Water Conditions in the Deltaic Lowland Rice Fields (II). Southeast Asian Studies 11(4): 512–524.

Kasetsart University; and ORSTOM. 1996. Identification of Agricultural and Irrigation Patterns in the Central Plain of Thailand: Prospects for Agricultural Research and Development. Bangkok: DORAS Project.

Kono Yasuyuki. 2001. Canal Development and Intensification of Rice Cultivation in the Mekong Delta: A Case Study in Cantho Province, Vietnam. Southeast Asian Studies 39(1): 70–85.

Le Thuy Ngan; Bregt, Arnold K.; van Halsema, Gerardo E.; Hellegers, Petra J. G. J.; and Nguyen Lam-Dao. 2018. Interplay between Land-Use Dynamics and Changes in Hydrological Regime in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. Land Use Policy 73: 269–280.

Molle, François; and Dao Thê Tuân. 2006. Water Control and Agricultural Development: Crafting Deltaic Environments in Southeast Asia. In A History of Water, Vol. 1: Water Control and River Biographies, edited by Terje Tvedt and Eva Jakobsson, pp. 144–171. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Molle, François; and Jesda Keawkulaya. 1998. Water Management and Agricultural Change: A Case Study in the Upper Chao Phraya Delta. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36(1): 32–58.

Molle, François; and Thippawal Srijantr. 1999. Agrarian Change and Land System in the Chao Phraya Delta. DORAS Project, Kasetsart University, Research Report No. 6.

Molle, François; Chatchom Chompadist; Thippawal Srijantr; and Jesda Keawkulaya. 2001a. Dry-Season Water Allocation and Management in the Chao Phraya Delta. Research Report No. 8, submitted to European Union, Bangkok., accessed September 25, 2020.

Molle, François; Sripan Durongdej; Chatchom Chompadist; Joannon, Alexandre; and Yuphaa Limsawad. 1999. Improvement of Rice Cultivation and Water Management in the Flooded Area of the Central Plain of Thailand: A Zoning of Rice Systems by Using Remote Sensing Imagery. DORAS Center, Kasetsart University, Research Report No. 5, submitted to NRCT, Bangkok.

Molle, François; Thippawal Srijantr; Latham, Lionel; and Phuangladda Thepsatitsilp. 2001b. The Impact of the Access to Irrigation Water on the Evolution of Farming Systems: A Case Study of Three Villages in the Chao Phraya Delta. DORAS Center, Kasetsart University, Research Report No. 11,, accessed September 25, 2020.

Nguyen, Van Kien; Pittock, Jamie; and Connel, Daniel. 2019. Dikes, Rice, and Fish: How Rapid Changes in Land Use and Hydrology Have Transformed Agriculture and Subsistence Living in the Mekong Delta. Regional Environmental Change 19: 2069–2077.

OAE (Office of Agricultural Economics). Various years. Agricultural Yearbook. Bangkok: OAE.

Pallegoix Mgr. 1976 [1852]. Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam [Description of the Kingdom of Siam]. Bangkok: DK Book House.

Pratch Rujivanarom. 2019. Water Situation Worrying. The Nation. April 14., accessed March 1, 2020.

Puckridge, David; Tawee Kupkanchanul; Wilailak Palaklang; and Kalaya Kupkanchanakul. 2000. Production of Rice and Associated Crops in Deeply Flooded Areas of the Chao Phraya Delta. In proceedings of the conference “The Chao Phraya Delta: Historical Development, Dynamics and Challenges of Thailand’s Rice Bowl,” Bangkok, December 12–15, pp. 51–85.

Ricks, Jacob. 2018. Politics and the Price of Rice in Thailand: Public Choice, Institutional Change and Rural Subsidies. Journal of Contemporary Asia 48(3): 395–418.

RID (Royal Irrigation Department). 2018. Karn chai phuen thi lum tam thung Bang Kum phuea rong rab pariman nam laak รายงานการศึกษา การใช้พื้นที่ลุ่มต่ำทุ่งบางกุ่มเพื่อรองรับปริมาณน้ำหลาก [Use of Bang Kum low-lying area for floodwater retention study project]. Water Management Division, Bureau of Water Management and Hydrology, RID.

―. 2016. Drought and Flood Management in Ayutthaya RID. Ayutthaya: RID.

―. 2010. Khrongkarnsueksa phuea karnphattana prasithiphap karnthamngarn tam tuachiwad khamrabrong karnpatibatrachakarn (cho po 11): Raingarn karnsueksa phuea phattana phuen thi lum tam thung Bang Kum โครงการศึกษาเพื่อการพัฒนาประสิทธิภาพการทำงานตามตัวชี้วัดคำรับรองการปฏิบัติราชการ (ชป ๒๒): รายงานการศึกษาเพื่อพัฒนาพื้นที่ลุ่มต่ำทุ่งบางกุ่ม [Study project for the development of work performance according to Statement of Approval indicator (RID 11): Study project for the development of Bang Kum low-lying area].

Small, Leslie Eugene. 1972. An Economic Evaluation of Water Control in the Northern Region of the Greater Chao Phya Project of Thailand. PhD dissertation, Cornell University.

Stiven, A. E. 1994 [1903]. Rice. In Twentieth Century Impressions of Siam: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources, edited by Arnold Wright and Oliver T. Breakspear, pp. 144–150. Bangkok: White Lotus.

Stuart, Alexander M.; Pame, Anny Ruth P.; Duangporn Vithoonjit; Ladda Viriyangkura; Julmanee Pithuncharurnlap; Nisa Meesang; Prarthana Suksiri; Singleton, Grant R.; and Lampayan, Rubenito M. 2018. The Application of Best Management Practices Increases the Profitability and Sustainability of Rice Farming in the Central Plains of Thailand. Field Crops Research 220: 78–87.

Sumet Jumsai. 1988. Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Takaya Yoshikazu. 1986. Agricultural Development of a Tropical Delta: A Study of the Chao Phraya Delta. Monographs of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Vol. 17. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Tanabe Shigeharu. 1980. Farming Technology in the Deep Flooding Area of the Chao Phraya Delta: A Case Study in Ayutthaya. Southeast Asian Studies 17(4): 658–707.

Tanaka Koji. 1995. Transformation of Rice-Based Cropping Patterns in the Mekong Delta: From Intensification to Diversification. Southeast Asian Studies 33(3): 363–378.

Tebakari Taichi; Yoshitani Junichi; Virat Khao-Uppatum; and Chanchai Suvanpimol. 2003. Trends in Decreasing Discharge in 1970s–1990s in the Chao Phraya River. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Hydrology and Water Resources in Asia Pacific Region, Kyoto, March 13–15, Vol. 1, pp. 185–190.

Thailand, Ministry of Agriculture. 1950. Thailand and Her Agricultural Problems. Bangkok: Ministry of Agriculture.

ThaiVisa. 2016. Drought to Damage Almost Half a Million Rice Fields in Central Plain. March 10., accessed March 1, 2020.

Thanaporn Trakuldit. 2018. Analysis of Public Participation in the Design of Flood Expansion Areas in Nakhon Sawan Province and Phitsanulok Province, Thailand. Master’s thesis, Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok.

Voogd, Sjoerd. 2019. The Bang Rakam Model: Farmers’ Perceptions on a Flood Retention Policy in Phitsanulok and Sukhothai Province, Thailand. Master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam.

Wuttitchai Chinawong. 2000. Utilisation of Water Reservoirs for Dry-Season Cropping: The Case of Reservoirs in the Flood Plain of the Chao Phraya Delta. MSc thesis, Kasetsart University.

1) The option of constructing large-scale pumping stations to remove that excess water into the river system, as practiced in the Red River Delta, for example, was considered economically unsound at this stage of the development of rice cultivation in Thailand.

2) Note the tidal effect on Khlong Bang Phra Khru, located 15 km upstream of Ayutthaya.

3) Notably with the construction of two large storage dams.

4) The generalization of the shift observed in Bang Kum to the whole floodplain was confirmed by satellite images and visits to six different boxes.

5) Those who helped mediate the process included a former director general of the Department of Agricultural Extension and a head of district with political support.

6) The reasons for this sharp increase in rice prices are beyond the scope of this paper. For further details, see Ricks (2018).

7) Not accounting for the investments made in on-farm development.

8) Twelve were situated in the middle and lower basin, the Bang Rakam low-lying land being the only one located in the upper basin (Sukhothai and Phitsanulok Provinces). Bang Rakam served as a pilot area for this policy, which is sometimes said to follow the Bang Rakam Model (Thanaporn 2018; Voogd 2019).

9) As on-farm infrastructure was improved.

10) In the BKB this could be done by allowing water from the Lop Buri River to enter at Tha Mek gate or by releases from the Chai Nat-Pasak Canal to drains and canals.

11) Or as late as January in years of exceptional flooding.

12) Considered as typically requiring 250 mm of water when the soil is dry.

13) The operation was conducted at high tide, when the water level would rise, since the tidal effect could be felt as far as the BKB.

14) ThaiVisa (2016).

15) Depending on their location, plots may have access to the drain, the irrigation canal, the rivers, and possibly a reservoir, or a combination of these sources. This dictates when a plot will start cultivation—from early if close to the main drain, to late if only canal water is accessible.

16) Bangkok Post (October 11, 2016).

17) Apinya and Sunthorn (2016).

18) Observations in the field, however, suggest a more complex—and sometimes mind-boggling—pattern, since it is not rare to observe neighboring paddy fields at all stages of cultivation. This can be explained by the heterogeneity in topography, water access (proximity to canals, drains, natural streams or ponds, local reservoirs, etc.), and farmers’ strategies.

19) Historically the cropping intensity in the delta in the dry season has been around 50 percent (see Molle et al. 2001a), but in recent years double cropping has become more frequent in the basin as a whole (higher runoff) and in Roeng Rang and Kok Katiem Projects in particular.

20) The RID sets up chat groups, which can be joined by scanning a QR code, clicking on a link, or being added by an existing member.

21) Approximately 80 m3/second must be maintained in the estuary to avoid saline water intrusion.

22) Chularat (2016). In January 2020 saline intrusion in the Chao Phraya again threatened domestic supply, leading to plans to divert water from the Mae Klong basin.

23) In this project the Department of Fisheries releases fish into the uncultivated paddies as the RID fills the box for around three months. Farmers can thus gain complementary revenue from fishing while waiting for the next sowing period.

24) At the same time, climate change works to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme events.


Vol. 10, No. 1, Byron Josue de Leon


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Peasant Violence in Early Nineteenth Century Philippines and Guatemala: The Cases of Apolinario de la Cruz and Rafael Carrera in Comparative Perspective

Byron Josue de Leon*

*Independent Scholar
e-mail: bjdeleon.lorini[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_119

The Philippines and Guatemala belong to a common indigenous Hispanic cultural sphere defined by the presence of large numbers of pre-Hispanic populations and their transformation by the institutions and rule of a shared history within the Spanish Empire. In the first half of the nineteenth century both regions were undergoing analogous fiscal pressures and economic transformations toward capitalist modes of agricultural production. They were also being introduced to global markets: the Philippines under the tutelage of a colonial regime and Guatemala under an inexperienced and dysfunctional federation of states. The brunt of the economic changes fell mostly on the lower castes of their societies, indigenous peasants. During the 1830s and early 1840s, despite efforts by the authorities in the Philippines to modernize and universalize the management of tribute in the colony, the territory’s fiscal system varied throughout the archipelago. By 1841, the year of the cofradía’s uprising in the province of Tayabas, tribute administration remained under the old corruption-plagued system led by alcaldes mayores and gobernadorcillos. These factors help to explain the background and motivations for the early nineteenth century peasant revolts led by Apolinario de la Cruz in the Philippines and Rafael Carrera in Guatemala.

Keywords: colonialism, peasant violence, Philippines, Guatemala, Apolinario de la Cruz, Catholic Church, state repression, cofradía

The study of peasant violence in the early nineteenth century requires an interregional comparative perspective. The Philippines and Mesoamerica make appropriate candidates for interregional comparison due to their relative similarities in socioeconomic composition, colonial history, and political importance within the Spanish-dominated territories. The aim of this research is to analyze the 1841 Cofradía de San José revolt led by Apolinario de la Cruz in the Philippines in comparative perspective with the peasant rebellion led by Rafael Carrera in Guatemala in 1837. The revolt led by Apolinario, a former lay brother in the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Manila, was ultimately put down by Spanish colonial authorities in November 1841; and the movement led by Carrera, a former army drummer and pig farmer, managed to defeat the Central American federal government in March 1840. However, this research’s assumption is that both cases represented the reactions of countryside peasants unified under the banner of religion against state intrusiveness in peasant traditional life and the imposition of heavy tribute during a period of rapid economic change in both locations and beyond. The paper will first give a sociopolitical description of the backdrop to the two revolts. It will begin by discussing the issue of land property as established in colonial legislation, followed by a brief survey of the economic conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century in both locations, continuing with a description of the reforms made to tribute collection. A brief description of the independence of Central America will be given to provide the reader with the political context in which the peasant revolt occurred in the former Kingdom of Guatemala. Lastly, the topic of religion in both territories’ revolts will be addressed. The research finds that peasant violence occurred in Guatemala when the state intervened in peasant life through the imposition of heavy tribute, forced labor, and/or confiscation of church and communal property—features in colonial and former colonial states adjusting to capitalist modes of production in the early nineteenth century—and suggests that similar forces were at play in the province of Tayabas (now Quezon Province) in the Philippines during the revolt of the Cofradía de San José and should be regarded as possible explanations for the 1841 peasant revolt in the Philippines.

The Imposition of Hispanic Modes of Property in Spain’s Overseas Dominions

Spaniards brought novel Hispanic institutions into the newly discovered lands of the Americas and the Philippines; and, most important, they imposed these Hispanic institutions on the newly discovered peoples. The new Hispanic modes of property introduced the concept of individual ownership of land, an alien concept for indigenous peoples who had previously exploited land under the basis of ejidos, or communal ownership of land. This communal mode of land exploitation was standard not only among the peoples of Mesoamerica but also among all the indigenous peoples whom the Spanish encountered in their overseas expansion, both on the American continent and in the Philippines.

From the sixteenth century onward, there were already two types of individual agricultural property owners in the Kingdom of Guatemala: owners of small properties who worked in subsistence agriculture; and owners of large properties, better known as haciendas, which were geared toward commerce in agricultural surpluses either in domestic markets or overseas. The owners of small properties were for the most part ladinos—people who were ethnically indigenous but culturally Hispanic or mixed-raced Spanish and indigenous (mestizo). Ladinos tended to have more pronounced indigenous than Spanish physical features. The haciendas were for the most part owned by Spaniards, criollos—Spaniards born in the colonies—or corporately by religious orders. The masses of indigenous people exploited their lands in the form of ejidos.

The majority of ladino settlements did not enjoy any legal support throughout the colonial period. Colonial authorities also resisted the founding of new poblaciones or towns that would have given these groups access to more land. Large property owners backed the authorities’ resistance to the founding of new settlements and to the conferral of legal rights to these small owners (Solórzano 1984, 98). It was also common for peasants to settle within the boundaries of haciendas, whose owners accepted them due to the labor they provided on their property and the possibility of retaining some proportion of the goods produced by the peasants as a form of payment for the use of their land. In fact, there were many cases in which poblaciones and towns were founded within haciendas, as studies from El Salvador demonstrate (Solórzano 1984, 98), and which occurred in Guatemala as well, particularly on its southern coast. One example of the latter is the current municipality of Palin, which originated from a previous hacienda. It is likely that such developments were commonplace in the region. Due to these complexities it is hard to determine with precision which territories were actual haciendas and which were settlements of a conglomeration of small producers utilizing common lands. What can be said with more certainty is that the expansion of territories owned individually by either haciendas or small landowners was occurring at the expense of indigenous communal lands and was analogous to the demographic increase of non-indigenous groups.

Another important element to consider is that in those regions of the kingdom where the proportion of the non-indigenous population was higher, the income generated for the government’s treasury from sales taxes (alcabala) was among the most important sources of revenue; this was the case in San Salvador in the last two years of the eighteenth century. Conversely, in areas where the proportion of the indigenous population was higher, the most important source of revenue was tribute; this was the case in Chiapas, now in southern part of Mexico, and most of Guatemala (Solórzano 1984, 109).

The Legal Basis of Property in the Indies: Recopilación de leyes de Indias

As in Mesoamerica, Hispanic institutions—among them individual ownership of land—were to be imposed in the Philippines upon indigenous populations that for generations had possessed their lands communally. Through individual landownership, proprietors were able to exclude outsiders from seemingly freely available land. This state of affairs would be hard to understand by communities on the islands that were used to working the land communally. It was expected that there would be clashes between communities needing access to lands and property owners excluding them. Nicholas Cushner’s (1973) research on Meysapan, an Augustinian property formerly located in Tondo, is a good case for studying the development of large state holdings in the Philippines that could have been replicated in other parts of the territory.

The origins of Meysapan can be traced to a sixteenth-century royal grant in favor of the Augustinians of San Pablo monastery, a holding that would increase in size through the acquisition of nearby land initially owned by both Spaniards and indigenous groups in a succession of transactions that would turn Meysapan into “one of the largest estates in seventeenth-century Philippines” (Cushner 1973, 34). Cushner states that the legal basis for the acquisition of property in the Philippines was the Recopilación de leyes de Indias, Book IV, Title XII, particularly Laws I, II, VII, IX, and XIX. The principalia, the native elite class of colonial Philippine society, seems to have benefited most when Hispanic modes of property were imported from overseas, a situation that allowed many in the group to gain individual ownership of village lands.1)

In the Recopilación, it is established in Law I that:

It is our will that it may be given and be given houses, solares,2) lands, caballerías,3) and peonías,4) to all those who settle in the new lands, that by the governor of the new settlement be indicated, making distinction between esquire and pawn, and those of lower grade . . .

and particularly Law IV:

If in the already discovered areas of the Indies there are some sites and regions so good that it suits the formation of settlements, and some people are willing to settle and live in them . . . the viceroys and presidents give them in our name lands, solares, and waters . . . and be it for the duration, according to our will. (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia 1841, 119)5)

Thus, we can appreciate that land was a patrimony of the Spanish Crown, and the distribution of land was to be done by high-level colonial bureaucrats in the name of Spanish monarchs, who granted land to those who were deemed to have provided loyal service.

In the case of Meysapan, the large state managed to increase its holdings through donations by principalia owners who expected goods or services in return for their donation, such as the provision of livestock or yearly Masses by local priests. By donating land to the Augustinians, the previous owners of the lands were in fact circumventing the prohibition by the Recopilación against the selling of property to religious orders or any member of the clergy (Recopilación Book IV, Title XII, Law X). Cushner mentions the case of Julian Talo, a principal land speculator who purchased land from other Filipinos in 1624 and later sold that land to the Augustinians for 300 pesos (Cushner 1973, 36). How Talo was able to sell his land to the clergy is unexplained, but two years later he made another donation to the religious order. It was in such ways that the religious group expanded its territory. The means through which these principales acquired ownership of the lands they donated or sold is not clearly explained, but it is reasonable to expect that their access to members of the colonial bureaucracy must have aided them in the acquisition of previously common land.

The estate of Meysapan leased land mainly to local natives and also to some Spaniards, sometimes through contracts with specific obligations and time of validity. Work in the lands of the religious orders must have been attractive for natives in the surrounding areas since domestic service to the religious orders granted exemptions from tribute and personal services (Cushner 1973, 44). In this way, the necessary labor force was obtained for the exploitation of the land. Meysapan is a representative example of how large haciendas originated in the Philippines during the centuries of colonial rule by the Spanish. Cushner concludes by stating that the imposition of “the concept of private ownership of land, superimposed on the native population, had created oppressive landholding patterns beneath whose weight the Filipino peasantry is still struggling” (Cushner 1973, 53). The patterns of landownership were diverse in different parts of the Philippines, as also in Mesoamerica. What can be said in a general way is that the large state was a feature of Spanish rule in all of its possessions and became the economic basis for land exploitation. In addition, it represented a source of friction with natives, particularly in territories with large native populations. The hacienda, an economic unit with a semi-governmental domain (Lockhart 1969, 425), would become the foundation on which nineteenth-century capitalism would be based, having at its core the governmental bureaucracy as the distributor and arbiter of patrimony.

The Economic Importance of Estancos in the Early Nineteenth Century

After Spain’s loss of possessions on the American continent, it became crucially important for Spanish colonial officials to achieve self-sufficiency in Manila. Commerce would be the way to achieve self-sufficiency, but due to the slow progress of commerce in the Philippines the colonial state became the main economic agent, capable of developing the market and the bases needed for the production and distribution of certain mass-consumed goods. It was on this basis that the state participated in the archipelago’s economy through an economic model based on estancos (government monopolies), which became the key existential link between the colony and metropole throughout the nineteenth-century Philippines (Fradera 1999, 28). The years 1820–1920 represent a period of radical change in the Philippines, due to the unstoppable progress of the Industrial Revolution and the high demand for agricultural goods produced on the Philippine islands, most important among them tobacco, abaca, coffee, and sugar (Larkin 1982, 612). These new products competed favorably in global markets and represented an important opportunity for Spain’s non-metal-producing colonies to acquire an economic significance previously not even imagined. For the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, it also meant a further century under the command of Spain (Álvarez 2004, 115).

The improvement of fiscal incomes in Philippine coffers would come mainly from sugar and tobacco, complemented by alcohol made from coconuts, among other products. Debates on the future of the Philippines within the Spanish world had been ongoing since Miguel López de Legazpi reached the islands in the sixteenth century. In 1782 José Basco y Vargas, in a political move aimed to improve the income for the military in the Philippines, established estancos, a significant novelty that would later become the key institution for the modernization of nineteenth-century Philippine economic life, and the sought-after financial solution to the bankruptcy and final independence of New Spain (Fradera 2005, 48). The Philippine government’s revenue from estancos in 1839 was around 67.5 percent of total revenue. The percentage would keep increasing over the years. The second-most important source of revenue was tribute, which represented 20.3 percent of the total in 1839 and 19.8 percent in 1852 (Fradera 2005).6)

This economic dependence on estancos and Indian tribute and labor was shared also in Mesoamerica and would constitute the main characteristics of nineteenth-century sociopolitical life in both regions. These two sources of income became indispensable for the Philippine government to try to keep itself economically afloat, especially since by 1834 and 1839 the territory remained economically strained and its trade balance and pension system in a clear deficit (AGI 1834; 1840b). The First Opium War (1839–42) also caused strains in the islands’ commerce, with the arrival of boats reduced due to developments in China (AGI 1841). So dire was the economic situation that the Philippine Treasury was unable to completely honor payments due and was falling behind in its obligations. For instance, in 1840 the Philippine Treasury was ordered to make a payment of 247,000 pesos, of which only 84,250 pesos could be paid (AGI 1840a). Channels existed for the avoidance of forced Indian labor and tribute. One was military service, particularly in the Philippines; and another was membership of religious organizations such as cofradías, which conferred immunity from forced labor (Di Tella 1990, 24). Exemptions were possible also by working on lands possessed by religious orders, as mentioned earlier. The alcalde mayor was the highest local official in charge of the hacienda (treasury) of its jurisdiction, and the gobernadorcillo acted as the local agent responsible for the collection of tribute, proceeds from the sale of indulgences, and exemption fees from personal service obligations (Bankoff 1992, 681–682).

One of the most significant sources of revenue for the treasury of the Kingdom of Guatemala was the subsidies emanating from New Spain, a dependency that was also shared by the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, until economic depression forced New Spain to suspend financial aid in the second decade of the 1800s. The subsidies were meant to be invested in the modernization and military defense of these territories. For the kingdom’s treasury, there were four main sources of income: the first was government monopolies or estancos of tobacco and aguardiente (liquor); the second was alcabala (sales tax) and almojarifazgo (trade taxes); the third was Indian tribute; and the fourth was the Church tithe. Of the four, estancos of tobacco and liquor represented the most important source of income by 1820, providing around 50 percent of the income entering the treasury of the kingdom just before the final separation with Spain (Hawkins 2004, 41).

On the Bourbon Reforms, Reformation from Above

As the Spanish historian José Miranda González described, reformer heads of state—from Catherine the Great of Russia to Holy Roman Emperor of Austria Joseph II and Charles III of Spain—were heading a process of modernization sweeping Europe under the banner of enlightened despotism (cited in Commons 2003, 42). The gradual top-to-bottom process of reformation and modernization of Spain’s metropolitan and colonial bureaucracies that began in the early eighteenth century under the new Bourbon Dynasty is known collectively as the Bourbon Reforms. For Spain and its colonies, the main aims of the reforms were uniformity and universality of the legal framework (a result of which was the Recopilación), a reorganization of administrative territories through intendancies, stimulation of the economy through enterprises that would increase the wealth of the kingdoms (the formation of estancos was a result of this impulse), among other measures in the realms of commerce and education. The Crown’s goal with these series of measures was to regain authority lost to the lower hierarchies of the colonial bureaucracy and traditional groups of colonial society, an erosion of authority that accelerated in the economically depressed seventeenth century. In essence, the measures were designed to consolidate absolutism in the lands belonging to Spain (Arroyo 1989, 89).

Among the most important reforms was the introduction of the intendancy system. Intendants were responsible for collecting revenue (a duty that previously belonged to the alcalde mayor), finding means to increase revenue, supervising the lenders of land and preventing them from oppressing the people in their jurisdiction, granting payment delays to farmers when needed, among other administrative duties (Fisher 1928). Aimed at improving the collection of tribute and limiting the corruption of local officials, intendancy was introduced progressively across the Indies: in Havana in 1764, northern Mexico in 1768, Louisiana in 1775, Venezuela and Argentina in 1777, the Philippines in 1782 (where the system did not enjoy much success) (Fisher 1928, 8), Peru in 1784, and the Kingdom of Guatemala in 1786 (where five intendancies were set up). Although the initial plan was to create five intendancies in the Philippines—in the territories of Manila, Ilocos, Camarines, Iloilo, and Cebu (Commons 2003, 59)—only one was established, in Manila. It was removed after two years, making the income collection system in the Philippines inconsistent with developments on the American continent and also making tribute collection different among the Philippine provinces themselves, a characteristic that would have implications for the events described later in this paper.

A possible reason behind the failure to implement the intendancy system may have been disputes surrounding the competing jurisdictions between the new intendants, the previous structure of alcaldes mayores, and a network of officials from the Treasury Superintendency (Fradera 1999, 103). Despite the bureaucratic reformist zeal in the Americas in the final decades of the eighteenth century, the Philippines would see the continuation of power of the “alcaldes mayores, and corregidores, parish priests and curates, all of them structured over the mechanisms of control associated with the collection of indigenous tribute” (Fradera 1999, 105). Given that alcaldes mayores in the Philippines were to retain their tributary functions, let us examine the importance of their roles, the implications of their roles on the Philippine political system, and what the roles meant for Guatemala when these officers were in place.

Alcaldes Mayores, Tribute Collection, and Governmental Corruption

Tribute was one of the main sources of revenue for the Manila authorities from the establishment of the captaincy in the sixteenth century until the final century of Spanish possession of the islands. Tribute was imposed on indios, mestizos, and Chinese according to a pyramidal structure: indios were taxed the least and Chinese the most—but Chinese were exempted from labor obligations—while the mestizo caste fell somewhere in between. This progressive tax structure was based on the castes’ varying capacities to produce wealth: the Chinese were the biggest producers of wealth and the indigenous peasants the smallest—although for Edgar Wickberg there might have been in the Spanish mind a correlation between economics and biology (Wickberg 1964, 64). Tribute (capacitación) and labor obligations (polos y servicios) were not required of the traditional principalia posts of cabezas de barangay and gobernadorcillos, including members of their immediate family, and those who were working the land in large haciendas belonging to religious orders. In the seventeenth century indigenous soldiers who had provided exemplary service to the state could also be exempted from bandala (forced purchase of agricultural goods) and repartimiento (forced labor) (Mawson 2016).

The collection of tribute depended on alcaldes mayores, gobernadorcillos, and cabezas de barangay alongside lesser-known but important lower clerical officials such as the directorcillo, who aided the gobernadorcillo in legal matters and tasks involving the Spanish language, an ability that most gobernadorcillos lacked, and the fiscalillo, the ecclesiastical counterpart who aided local priests in distant towns (Bankoff 1992). As in Mesoamerica before the introduction of the intendancy system, the collection of tribute was plagued with corruption; and the result was

much more than simply corruption. An entire commercial system based on government officials came into existence. The Spanish corregidores (magistrates), alcaldes mayores, and governors who ruled in the Kingdom of Guatemala in reality were entrepreneurs who organized a variety of business activities that affected the economic integration of the whole of Central America. (Patch 1994, 78)

Robert Patch reveals that the average salary of an alcalde mayor in eighteenth-century Western Guatemala was around 600 pesos a year, but corrupt practices could boost that income to 12,000 pesos (Patch 1994, 98). To put this amount in context, Eliodoro Robles notes that in the nineteenth century the captain and governor-general of the Philippines received an annual salary of 13,325 pesos and three grams of oro común, which combined amounted to 20,000 pesos (Robles 1969, 16); the official salary of the viceroy of New Spain was a similar amount. Geography mattered: it was in regions with high concentrations of indigenous populations that there was more opportunity for wealth accumulation by local officials. This system allowed the Crown to maintain a colonial bureaucracy at little cost, and presented local bureaucrats with commercial channels for personal enrichment, a system where corruption was “an integral and necessary part of the colonial system” (Patch 1994, 80). This same system was in operation in the Philippines. Cushner describes how local officials such as the gobernadorcillo, who “represented the central government on the village level, was reduced to practice fraud in order to support the ordinary running of village affairs” (quoted in Bankoff 1992, 682).

Reform of Tribute Collection in the Philippines

Josep Fradera in Filipinas, la colonia más peculiar (1999) gives a very detailed and clear description of the reforms that alcaldes mayores experienced in the Philippines. The alcaldes mayores were responsible for the collection of tribute. They depended on a network of local officials led by gobernadorcillos and cabezas de barangay, in a process that depended on tributary lists produced by local parishes. Tribute was required to be paid to the alcalde mayor and his network of subdelegates (gobernadorcillos and cabezas de barangay) in the form of produce, usually unhusked rice (palay), which was then transported and sold in local markets by the alcalde at a profit. This suggests that the amount of rice collected from peasants was inflated for the purpose of personal profit by the collectors. The system was rife with corruption, as mentioned above, and measures were taken to gradually reform it beginning in 1768, with limited success. The most important modifications to the collection of tribute occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1826 tribute was required to be paid in metallic money in an attempt to curb the abuses of the alcaldes and gobernadorcillos. The gathered amount was to be placed in accounts belonging to the Philippine Treasury (previously it was deposited in provincial accounts), and in 1837 it was decreed that jurists should be named for the post of alcalde mayor.

In spite of all these measures, adoption was not uniform in all the territories. In 1837 a decree established that military officers were to be named alcaldes mayores in the provinces of “Caraga, Samar, Iloilo, Antique, Capiz, Albay, Camarines Sur and Tayabas” as well as the Marianas, Cavite, and Zamboanga, which already had military governments (Fradera 1999, 172). It would not be until 1844 that the alcaldes lost the privilege of carrying out commercial activities while holding office. By 1840 most provinces were collecting tribute in the form of metallic money, with the exception of Tayabas and Ilocos, which were still paying in commodities. A number of important circumstances coincided in 1841, the year that Apolinario’s brotherhood violence erupted: first, the group’s home province of Tayabas was still required to pay heavy tribute in the form of rice; second, the alcalde mayor in charge of tribute collection was a military officer; third, the alcalde still retained the right to commerce, which was a means for personal enrichment and a source of abuse against peasants; and fourth, Tayabas Province was still being run by gobernadorcillos even though the surrounding provinces were not.

Guatemala and the Preservation of Empire

The process of gaining independence in the Kingdom of Guatemala was quite different from developments in the seat of government in New Spain and in the Spanish colonies of South America. While Mexico and South America were involved in violent civil wars in 1810–21, the Kingdom of Guatemala—like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—remained stable and loyal to the absolutist Ferdinand VII, making the kingdom a case of preservation of empire (Hawkins 2004). Guatemala’s independence came about not through a violent independence struggle, but through the political instability caused by a military revolt in 1820 led by Rafael del Riego in Spain against Ferdinand VII, which forced the king to restore the contentious Constitution of 1812. The constitutional crisis in Spain led to Mexico’s decision to finally secede from Spain and form an independent Mexican Empire in 1821. Mexico encouraged the Kingdom of Guatemala to secede from Spain and join its new empire; at the same time, it dispatched military forces toward the Guatemalan border in order to exert pressure. Ultimately, Guatemalan representatives agreed that the Guatemalan territory would join the Mexican Empire. Thus, the struggle for the independence of Central America from Spain was carried by Mexico, and was not a result of an internal project that aimed for the emancipation of the former kingdom (Acosta 2014, 17).

Mexico’s experiment with independence, led by the military man Agustín de Iturbide, would be short-lived. The experiment began when the viceroy of New Spain sent Iturbide to defeat the rebels approaching the capital in 1821. After seeing the strength of the rebels, Iturbide signed a pact with the rebel leader, Vicente Guerrero, known as the Plan of the Three Guarantees.7) In it, New Spain declared its independence from Spain (first guarantee), established Catholicism as the state religion without tolerating any other (second guarantee), and declared the union between Americans and Europeans (third guarantee). The plan named, of all people, Ferdinand VII as emperor of the new political entity (Article 4), or in his absence any other prince from the Bourbon Dynasty (Mexican Government Documents 2019).

After the plan was rejected by Ferdinand VII, Iturbide was named emperor by the Mexican Congress in May 1822. By March 1823 Mexico was once again embroiled in a civil war, and Iturbide’s short reign ended with his abdication. Central America convened a congress and in June 1823 declared its annexation with the Mexican Empire null and void. In this way the Central American region found itself surprised with independence for a second time, and once again without violence (Acosta 2014). This marked the beginning of the United Provinces of Central America, and this was the political backdrop against which Carrera’s peasant uprising would make its appearance.

Peasant Revolts, Reactions from the Countryside

Both the revolt by the Cofradía de San José led by Apolinario in Tayabas Province in the Philippines and the movement led by Carrera in eastern Guatemala were peasant revolts that could be categorized as movements of the folk, of the masses, of those coming from the villages, of the laymen—or, using a term employed by Robert Redfield, revolts belonging to the little tradition (Redfield 1955; Sturtevant 1976; Ileto 1979).

Both uprisings—in 1841 in the Philippines, and in 1837 in Guatemala—were led by charismatic leaders from humble origins who had participated, however indirectly, in two of the most important political institutions of the nineteenth century, the Church and the military. These two institutions were for the most part the only channels in colonial society (and postcolonial society in the case of Guatemala) that could provide some measure of upward social mobility to a small number of members of the lower castes.

Apolinario (or Hermano Pulé) was born in 1815 in Lucban, Tayabas Province. Encouraged by churchmen, he attempted to have a clerical career, but this was ultimately denied to him by the Spanish authorities. He worked as a donado or lay brother in the Hospital San Juan de Dios, in Manila, for six years until he was unexplainably fired in March 1840. The ex-donado along with other members of his community founded the Cofradía de San José in 1832 in his hometown of Lucban. The cofradía enjoyed great popularity and an increase in membership, which in 1840 numbered in the thousands. This success drew the suspicion of local authorities and led to a series of measures against the brotherhood. The brotherhood sought official recognition from secular and religious authorities numerous times, but each time it was denied. The authorities’ responses were increasingly repressive, which led to an open revolt by the brotherhood on October 23, 1841. Despite its initial success in the revolt, the cofradía was suppressed by colonial authorities on October 31, 1841, and its leader, Apolinario, was executed a few days later.

Carrera was born in 1814 in what is today Guatemala City. Of mulatto, mestizo, and Spanish descent, he was described as possessing a physical complexion closest to an Indian’s (Woodward 2008). Born into a humble family, Carrera enlisted in the federal army as a drummer when he was 12 years old. He rose through the ranks to attain the title of sergeant. After his time in the army he engaged in several odd occupations, from being a cochineal planter to finally becoming a pig farmer in the eastern town of Mataquescuintla in 1832. Motivated by members of the Church to fight against the government’s liberal anti-clerical policies and the implementation of forced labor, he led the rebellion in 1837 that eventually saw the collapse of the government. He participated in the creation of a conservative government that he himself eventually oversaw.

The ages of both leaders are noteworthy: Apolinario was 27 years old at the time of his revolt (AHN 1842), while Carrera was 23 years old when he led his movement.

Causes of the Revolts, the Push for Capitalism

To understand the probable causes of the revolts led by Apolinario and Carrera, it is important to view the oppressive forces subjugating the respective communities. In the case of the Cofradía de San José, as mentioned earlier in the paper, the province of Tayabas was under different fiscal pressures from its neighboring provinces. The cofradía’s province was one of only two territories where tribute was still being collected in the form of commodities (the other being Ilocos), the alcalde mayor had been recently militarized, and countrywide the weight of tribute had been standardized to 12 reales8) (Fradera 1999) (1 peso was equal to 8 reales). That means despite the efforts of the colonial authorities to modernize the tributary system in the Philippines, in the province of Tayabas the tributary structure in place was still the old corruption-plagued system dominated by alcaldes mayores and gobernadorcillos. This background may have influenced the likelihood of people joining the brotherhood and supporting it. It even seems that neighboring provinces did not have either gobernadorcillos or parish priests:

The authorities in Tayabas Province, and even those in the neighboring provinces of Laguna Batangas and Tondo, which did not have gobernadorcillos or parish priests—people who held so much influence among the natives—had not only remained loyal to the Supreme Government but even taken preemptive measures to defend the provincial capital and to capture Apolinario, dead or alive. (AHN 1842)

After independence from the Mexican Empire in 1823, the five states that previously made up the Kingdom of Guatemala formed a new independent nation called the United Provinces of Central America. The new Central American state became embroiled in a series of domestic political struggles involving the conservative and liberal parties. The conservative party was in favor of preserving the old institutions, privileges, and social leadership of the Catholic Church. The liberal party, inspired by political developments in the United States and the cultural influence of the British Empire, wanted to replace traditional Hispanic and indigenous institutions with those considered modern and civilizational, such as the privatization of means of production, separation of Church and state, and free trade. In the Guatemalan state, the political struggle between these two factions involved political intrigue and coups d’etat that eventually led to open hostilities as early as 1826. By 1831 the liberals were in a strong position, having gained the presidency of the state of Guatemala and the presidency of the federal government, under which ambitious liberal reforms took place. The main targets of the reforms were the Church and ejido lands, with the confiscation and auctioning of religious and indigenous communal property. The Guatemalan government raised the head tax to two pesos, “an amount sufficient to harass the Guatemalan peasant of the 1830s who operated principally in a barter economy” (Woodward 2008, 49).9) Infrastructure works depended on Indian labor, a population regarded by the upper classes as indolent. Exemption from labor obligations required payment of the daily low wage; this was not possible for most workers, making this kind of labor a forced one (Woodward 2008). The government sought to develop the countryside by extending land grants to Europeans willing to settle there (Griffith 2012). Liberals viewed this series of land measures as modern and civilizational, but the peasantry was instead further infuriated by the actions. It was in the midst of this turmoil that in 1837 Carrera made his entry into the scene.

Similar developments were taking place in the Philippines in the 1830s, but at a much slower speed. It was in the first half of the century that colonial authorities were seeking ways to improve and modernize the economy in capitalistic terms. In 1839 the Philippine Treasury lamented over the territory’s trade imbalance, regretting that despite the territory’s many natural resources, its advantageous geographical location in Asia—close to the Chinese Empire—and its wealth in lands and people, it was underperforming. A treasury official viewed this economic malaise as originating from the inhabitants of the colony:

The causes of this malaise I already conveyed to His Majesty in the letter of January 28, No. 321. The main wealth of these islands is found in agriculture, and it finds itself being given to the tanned-skin caste of poor indios, who in every part of the world where they are found display apathy, sloth, and indifference to the comforts of life that are acquired through labor. This caste lacks capital and that active white caste that can guide them with the intelligence toward wealth and well-being. (AGI 1840b)

The official offered a solution for the economic difficulties of the islands: the protection of all foreign capitalists trying to establish themselves in the Philippines, particularly those that used their own capital and industry for the acquisition of land. From the same source, it is possible to see the 1834 request made by the president of the United States to the Spanish government for a royal permit for a businessman named Jonatan Willard Peel to establish himself in the Philippines to conduct commerce (AGI 1840b).10)

The Veneration of Saint Joseph: The Role of Religion in Peasant Violence

Various studies have made important contributions to the study of the Cofradía de San José, focusing on its religious aspects. Ikehata Setsuho used the activities of the Cofradía de San José as “a means of clarifying the nature of popular Catholicism in the Philippines in the first half of the nineteenth century” (Ikehata 1990, 111). Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon and Revolution used the readings of the passion of the Christ (specifically the Pasyon Pilapil) as understood by the masses as a means of understanding how the traditional mind operates. According to him, Catholic traditions such as Holy Week “fundamentally shaped the style of peasant brotherhoods and uprisings during Spanish and early American colonial periods” (Ileto 1979, 11). On Apolinario’s uprising, Ileto notes:

The events that culminated in the bloody revolt of 1841 was [sic] not simply a blind reaction to oppressive forces in colonial society; it was a conscious act of realizing certain possibilities of existence that the members were made conscious of through reflection upon certain mysteries and signs. (Ileto 1979, 30)

Notwithstanding the enormous impact of Pasyon and Revolution on Philippine historiography since its publication in 1979, Ileto’s use of textual documents to understand the masses that revolted against their Spanish masters was convincingly put into question by Joseph Scalice, who argued that Ileto’s ambiguously termed masses did not experience the Pasyon in written form but through singing (pabasa) and dramatic acting performances (sinakulo), which both the elites and lower members of Tagalog society participated in (Scalice 2018). For Scalice, sources other than the Pasyon or the awit (Tagalog verse) are needed to begin to understand the consciousness of peasants, day laborers, and members of the working class who played a role in the Philippine Revolution:

We will not, however, learn from this reconstructed consciousness why the masses revolted to begin with. To address this latter question we must address the historical circumstances that shaped working-class and peasant consciousness and that made revolution an objective necessity for members of those groups. The Philippine Revolution emerged in the late nineteenth century from out of the dramatic transformations in the colony’s economic and political life. (Scalice 2018, 50)

For David Sturtevant, among others, the Cofradía de San José’s coalition of peasants and principales and its revolt confirmed Spanish fears by representing “the first coordinated religious rebellion in Philippine history” (Sturtevant 1976, 82). For Teodoro Agoncillo and Oscar Alfonso the motives behind the revolt led by Apolinario were also religious (Agoncillo and Alfonso 1960, 140), while for David Sweet the roots of the violence lay in a combination of discouraging the practice of traditional customs, combined with heavy taxes and labor, an increase in the economic importance of mestizos, and the “arbitrariness and a morality of the country clergy” (Sweet 1970, 114). When attempting to locate the factors that prompted the cofradía’s revolt, given what is discussed in this paper, Sweet’s argument seems to be the most reasonable. As Juan Carlos Solórzano and Douglass Sullivan-González succinctly describe in their works on Carrera’s peasant uprising in Guatemala, indigenous and ladino peasants saw their economic, social, and religious institutions under threat from the modernizing forces being promoted by the state. For Apolinario’s and Carrera’s movements, religion became the unifying ideological motivation under which previously fragmented castes would join together as a community in defense of traditional peasant life (Solórzano 1987, 9; Sullivan-González 1998, 85). Thus, in the Philippines, the diverse members of Apolinario’s movement became conscious of their common interests and under the ideological unifying banner of religion sought to defend themselves from the state’s constraints and its intransigence toward freedom of assembly.

Likewise, in Guatemala a multiethnic and multi-class alliance formed; and a blend of “power politics and religion unique to Latin America in the 19th century” developed in Carrera’s organized revolt (Sullivan-González 1998, 4). In both cases local priests played an important role as the most important nodes in local village networks, providing valuable moral support and guidance to the leaders while legitimizing the movements in the eyes of community members with their presence. Apolinario’s adviser, Father Ciriaco de los Santos—who also managed the finances of the brotherhood as its treasurer—was the person through whom Apolinario met Don Domingo Rojas, a wealthy mestizo businessman. He counseled Apolinario to gain as many supporters as he could in order to force the authorities to approve the recognition of the cofradía or, if unsuccessful, to cut heads (cortar cabezas), in which case Apolinario and his friends were in danger (AHN 1842). This advice from Rojas probably made the tragic turn of events nearly unavoidable.

As in the case of the Cofradía de San José, members of the Church played key roles in Guatemala’s peasant uprisings. The liberal government’s anti-clerical policies forced many leading clergymen to live as exiles in Louisiana and Cuba and in the case of Father Mariano Durán led to death by firing squad. For Carrera, Father Francisco Aqueche played a very important role: not only was the latter the link through which Carrera would meet his wife, Petrona Carrera, daughter of a wealthy local man in Eastern Guatemala, but it was also he who convinced Carrera to accept the request by local peasants to lead them in revolt against the government. Carerra’s forces managed to finally defeat their opponents, led by the president of the federation, Francisco Morazán, on March 19, 1840. The date was subsequently used not only to commemorate Carrera’s important military victory but also as testament to the link between God’s favor and the country, as the vicar general testified—for March 19 coincided with the festive day commemorating Saint Joseph (Sullivan-González 1998, 72).

The Regulatory Base of the Cofradías

The primary goal of Apolinario’s brotherhood was to achieve official recognition for the Cofradía de San José. For this reason it is important to discuss the institution of cofradías. Apolinario and his followers believed that official recognition of the confraternity depended on the approval of either the ecclesiastical or secular authorities in the Philippines; they submitted applications at least four times to this end, meeting refusals every single time. The authorities at the Ministry of Justice in Madrid who in 1842 reviewed the confraternity’s uprising the previous year (AHN 1842) advised the Audiencia of Manila to be vigilant of the governor’s magistrates and the alcaldes mayores of all the provinces to enforce Law XXV, Title IV, Book I of the Recopilación, which regulates the establishment of cofradías. The law states that to

establish cofradias, juntas, colleges, or councils of Spaniards, indios, blacks, mulattos, or other people of any condition or quality, even if the things and ends were pious and spiritual, precedes our licence and authority from Ecclesiastical Prelate and having been made the ordinances and statutes, be presented to the Royal Council of the Indies, so that in it, it be observed and dispensed with what is suitable . . . and if it were approved or confirmed, may not gather nor council, without the presence of any of our royal ministers, that by viceroy, president, or governor be named. (Paredes 1681)11)

The regulation concerning the establishment of cofradías in the Spanish Indies was much more restrictive than the regulation governing the provision of land. Land was to be distributed by governors, presidents, and viceroys, while religious brotherhoods needed the direct approval of the king himself through the Council of the Indies.12) This indicates how strongly the metropolitan authorities mistrusted autonomous religious groups as early as 1600, when the law was enacted. The mistrust of confraternities in Europe was widespread from medieval times: these pious organizations were seen as threats to both secular and ecclesiastical powers. The Church in Europe succeeded in bringing brotherhoods within its jurisdiction with the edicts of the Council of Trent (1545–63), while the state dealt with the threat posed by these organizations by suppressing them (Eisenbichler 2019, 1). In spite of the limitations imposed in the Recopilación, confraternities were widespread in the Spanish Indies: in the New Spanish capital, for instance, there were thousands of recognized confraternities by the eighteenth century and many more unrecognized ones (MacLeod 2019, 281). By the last part of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, secular and religious authorities in New Spain were targeting confraternities, particularly their funds, and trying to abolish them (MacLeod 2019, 284).

Confraternities were means through which indigenous communities could preserve some autonomy and pre-Hispanic traditions, celebrate feasts, provide funeral assistance, aid in Christian conversion, and promote general solidarity in their communities. They also provided social status to their members, provided extra income for priests, and conferred exemptions from forced labor (Di Tella 1990). Some cofradías’ holdings were also designed for “evading the exactions of church and state” (MacLeod 2019, 302). For instance, on June 29, 1773, an earthquake struck the seat of government of the Kingdom of Guatemala. Due to the destruction, government officials decided to transfer the capital to a new location, where the current capital—Guatemala City—still stands. Such an enterprise required a large number of indigenous laborers and the forced migration of indios from the central valley of Guatemala. Many resisted these measures by migrating to other pueblos, fleeing into the mountains, or refusing to pay tribute. Some “joined religious cofradías to be exempt from all low class labor” (Pedro Pérez Valenzuela 1934, quoted in Jones 1940, 11).


The Philippines’ nineteenth-century peasant violence should not be treated as a local spontaneous reaction unconnected with wider events in other parts of the former Spanish world and beyond. Peasant violence is a reaction against the state’s economic and political intrusiveness in peasant community livelihoods and should be seen as an act of resistance in the defense of the traditional peasant economy, organization, and traditions. Apolinario’s confraternity, although religious in nature, was victim to a centralized and militarized colonial state, traumatized by the loss of its American colonies and obsessed with discovering and destroying any hint of a political movement for independence or a movement that might be used by third parties with independentist aims13) (AHN 1842). The case of the Cofradía de San José represents more than the mere suppression of a religious brotherhood. Its importance is that it represented the emergence of a modern civil society organization in colonial Philippines, tragically suppressed by an arbitrary regime afraid of reliving the traumatic events that had led to the loss of the American colonies.

Accepted: August 24, 2020


The author would like to acknowledge the kind support received from Prof. Onimaru Takeshi at Kyushu University, the peer-reviewers’ valuable comments, and the editor’s hard work and patience with this paper.


Acosta, Willy Soto. 2014. Del sueño unitario a la fragmentación: La República Federal de Centroamérica (1823–1838) [From unitarian dream to fragmentation: The Republic of Central America (1823–1838)]. In Centroamérica: casa común e integración regional [Central America: Common house and regional integration], edited by Willy Soto Acosta and Max Ulloa Suárez, pp. 17–31. San José: Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica.

Agoncillo, Teodoro A.; and Alfonso, Oscar M. 1960. A Short History of the Filipino People. Quezon City: University of the Philippines.

Álvarez, Luis Alonso. 2004. El tributo indígena en la consolidación de la Hacienda filipina, 1698–1800 [Indigenous tribute in the consolidation of the Philippine Treasury, 1698–1800]. Jahrbuch für Geschichte Lateinamerikas/Anuario de Historia de America Latina 41: 91–115.

Archivo General de Indias [General Archive of the Indies] (AGI). 1841. Audiencia de Filipinas [Audience of Philippines]. Cartas del Intendente y del Superintendente de Ejercito [Letters from the intendant and from the superintendent of the army]. Sign. FILIPINAS, 834. April 7, Manila.

―. 1840a. Cartas del Intendente y del Superintendente de Ejercito [Letters from the intendant and from the superintendent of the army]. Sign. FILIPINAS, 834. July 11, Manila.

―. 1840b. Cartas del Intendente y del Superintendente de Ejercito [Letters from the intendant and from the superintendent of the army]. Sign. FILIPINAS, 834. July 8, Manila.

―. 1834. Duplicados de cartas de gobernadores de Filipinas [Duplicates of letters from governors of the Philippines]. Sign. FILIPINAS, 521. June 6, Manila.

Archivo Histórico Nacional [National Historical Archive] (AHN). 1842. Causa contra la Cofradía de San José de Tayabas [Cause against the confraternity of San Jose in Tayabas]. Sign. ULTRAMAR, LEG, 5152, Exp. 6. November 7, Madrid.

Arroyo, Isabel Gutiérrez del. 1989. El nuevo régimen institucional bajo la real ordenanza de intendentes de la Nueva España (1786) [The new institutional regime under the intendant royal decree of New Spain (1786)]. Historia Mexicana 39(1): 89–122.

Bankoff, Greg. 1992. Big Fish in Small Ponds: The Exercise of Power in a Nineteenth-Century Philippine Municipality. Modern Asian Studies 26(4): 679–700. doi: 10.1017/S0026749X00010027.

Commons, Áurea. 2003. La organización territorial de España y sus posesiones en América durante el siglo de las luces [The territorial organization of Spain and its possessions in America during the century of lights]. In La geografía de la ilustración [The geography of the Enlightenment], coordinated by José Omar Moncada Maya, pp. 41–82. México D.F.: UNAM.

Cushner, Nicholas P. 1973. Meysapan: The Formation and Social Effects of a Landed Estate in the Philippines. Journal of Asian History 7(1): 30–53., accessed May 29, 2020.

Di Tella, Torcuato S. 1990. Latin American Politics: A Theoretical Approach. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Diccionario de la Lengua Castellana [Dictionary of the Castellan language] (DLC). 1791. Tercera Edición [Third edition]. Madrid: Real Academia Española.

Eisenbichler, Konrad. 2019. Introduction: A World of Confraternities. In A Companion to Medieval and Early Modern Confraternities, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler, pp. 1–19. Leiden: Brill.

Fisher, Lilian Estelle. 1928. The Intendant System in Spanish America. Hispanic American Historical Review 8(1): 3–13. doi: 10.2307/2505817.

Fradera, Josep M. 2005. Colonias para después de un imperio [Colonies for after an empire]. Barcelona: Edicions Bellaterra.

―. 1999. Filipinas, la colonia más peculiar: La hacienda pública en la definición de la política colonial, 1762–1868 [Philippines, the most peculiar colony: The public treasury in the definition of colonial policy, 1762–1868]. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.

Griffith, William J. 2012. Empires in the Wilderness: Foreign Colonization and Development in Guatemala, 1834–1844. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hawkins, Timothy. 2004. José de Bustamante and Central American Independence: Colonial Administration in an Age of Imperial Crisis. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Ikehata Setsuho. 1990. Popular Catholicism in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines: The Case of the Cofradía de San José. In Reading Southeast Asia, edited by Audrey Kahin, Roberta Ludgate, and Dolina Millar, pp. 109–188. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ileto, Reynaldo Clemeña. 1979. Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840–1910. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Jones, Chester Lloyd. 1940. Guatemala: Past and Present. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Konetzke, Richard. 1977. América Latina II. La época colonial [Latin America II: The colonial period]. Historia universal Siglo XXI. México D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno.

Larkin, John A. 1982. Philippine History Reconsidered: A Socioeconomic Perspective. American Historical Review 87(3): 595–628. doi: 10.2307/1864158.

Lockhart, James. 1969. Encomienda and Hacienda: The Evolution of the Great Estate in the Spanish Indies. Hispanic American Historical Review 49(3): 411–429. doi: 10.2307/2511778.

MacLeod, Murdo J. 2019. Confraternities in Colonial New Spain: Mexico and Central America. In A Companion to Medieval and Early Modern Confraternities, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler, pp. 280–306. Leiden: Brill.

Mawson, Stephanie. 2016. Philippine Indios in the Service of Empire: Indigenous Soldiers and Contingent Loyalty, 1600–1700. Ethnohistory 63(2): 381–413. doi: 10.1215/00141801-3455363.

Mexican Government Documents. 2019. 1821: The Plan of Iguala., accessed October 25, 2020.

Paredes, Iulian. 1681. Recopilación de leyes de los Reynos de las Indias [Compilation of laws of the kingdoms of the Indies]. First Tome. doi: 10.34720/dfdm-e874.

Patch, Robert W. 1994. Imperial Politics and Local Economy in Colonial Central America 1670–1770. Past & Present 143: 77–107., accessed October 24, 2018.

Pérez, Valenzuela Pedro. 1934. La nueva Guatemala de la Asunción: Terremoto de Santa Marta, fundación en el llano de la Virgen [The new Guatemala of Asuncion: The earthquake of Santa Marta, foundation in the plain of the Virgin]. Ciudad de Guatemala: Tipografía nacional.

Redfield, Robert. 1955. The Social Organization of Tradition. Far Eastern Quarterly 15(1): 13–21. doi: 10.2307/2942099.

Robles, Eliodoro. 1969. The Philippines in the 19th Century. Quezon City: Malaya Books.

Scalice, Joseph. 2018. Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon and Revolution Revisited, a Critique. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 33(1): 29–58. doi: 10.1355/sj33-1b.

Solórzano, Juan Carlos F. 1987. Rafael Carrera, ¿reaccion conservadora o revolucion campesina? Guatemala 1837–1873 [Rafael Carrera: Conservative reaction or peasant revolution? Guatemala 1837–1873]. Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos 13(2): 5–35., accessed July 10, 2020.

―. 1984. Haciendas, ladinos y explotación colonial: Guatemala, El Salvador y Chiapas en el siglo XVIII [Haciendas, ladinos, and colonial exploitation: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chiapas in the eighteenth century]. Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos 10: 95–123.

Sturtevant, David R. 1976. Popular Uprisings in the Philippines, 1840–1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sullivan-González, Douglass. 1998. Piety, Power, and Politics: Religion and Nation Formation in Guatemala, 1821–1871. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Sweet, David. 1970. A Proto-political Peasant Movement in the Spanish Philippines: The Cofradia de San Jose and the Tayabas Rebellion of 1841. Asian Studies 8(1): 94–119.

Tribunal Supremo de Justicia [Supreme Justice Tribunal]. 1841. Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias [Compilation of laws of the kingdoms of the Indies], edited by Boix. Second Tome. Fifth Edition. Madrid: Impresor y Librero.

Wickberg, Edgar. 1964. The Chinese Mestizo in Philippine History. Journal of Southeast Asian History 5(1): 62–100.

Woodward Jr., Ralph Lee. 2008. Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

1) In his paper, Cushner refers to the newly introduced concept of individual landownership as private ownership, an understanding of property rights shared by James Lockhart. It is important for the reader to be aware that the Recopilación itself does not mention the concept of private property or ownership; it discusses property ownership in terms of the Spanish word propio, which carries connotations of individual, particular, and/or proper (but not private) possession of an object. Diccionario de la Lengua Castellana (1791) defines propio as “What belongs to someone, with the right of using it freely to his will,” while it defines privado as “What is executed by the view of few familiar and domestically, without formality” and “what is particular and personal of each,” among a few other definitions not relevant here (DLC 1791, 696). When the Recopilación uses the word privado, it does so mostly as the past tense of privar, which is defined by the same dictionary as “to strip away, or remove something that was possessed” (DLC 1791, 682) and used in the description of penalties and punishments for individuals who transgressed the law. For instance, an alcalde mayor who bought silver illegally would be privado (removed) from his office (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia 1841, 142). This is not to challenge the validity of employing the term as Cushner does, but to clarify the use of the word in the context of the time studied. The link between privado and property would probably persist until the nineteenth century.

2) Small landed property where a house was built.

3) Large unit of land around 43 hectares.

4) Small unit of land around 4.46 hectares (Konetzke 1977, 40).

5) The original Spanish documents were translated into English by the author of this paper. All responsibility for any error of translation falls entirely on this author.

6) Before the establishment of estancos of tobacco, tribute was the most important source of government revenue in the Philippines. Its importance at the close of the eighteenth century was even higher if taking into consideration provincial records of tribute collection as opposed to the accounts registered in Manila (Álvarez 2004).

7) Widely known as the Plan de Iguala.

8) For David Sweet (1970, 98), however, the amount of tribute was 3 pesos, which was equal to 24 reales.

9) Head tax was the same form of taxation as in the recent past colonial regime, that is, indigenous tribute.

10) The source is significant because it clearly shows the racist attitude of Spanish officials toward the indigenous populations in 1840. It is important also because it shows the unfavorable economic conditions that the Philippines was perceived to be in compared with other foreign colonies, even Spain’s own Cuba and Puerto Rico. To improve the economic performance of the islands, the Spanish official recommended capitalism and white immigration.

11) The law is titled “Cofradías may not be founded without license from the king, nor be gathered without the presence of magistrates and royal ministers.”

12) The Council of the Indies was suppressed in 1836. During the time the brotherhood made its applications in 1840–41, the administration of the remaining colonies was the responsibility of the Overseas Government within the Secretary of State and Office of the Navy.

13) After investigating and analyzing all the evidence surrounding the cofradía’s revolt, government officials in Madrid concluded that there was no plot or conspiracy by the members of the brotherhood against the authorities or to make the islands independent. Their efforts were focused on the establishment of the confraternity. Additionally, the officials revealed that the members involved in the violence had indicated that they would not pay tribute (AHN 1842).


Vol. 10, No. 1, Shimojo Hisashi


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Local Politics in the Migration between Vietnam and Cambodia: Mobility in a Multiethnic Society in the Mekong Delta since 1975

Shimojo Hisashi*

*下條尚志, Graduate School of Intercultural Studies, Kobe University, 1-2-1, Tsurukabuto, Nada-ku, Kobe 657-8501, Japan
e-mail: shimojoenator[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_89

This paper examines the history of cross-border migration by (primarily) Khmer residents of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta since 1975. Using a multiethnic village as an example case, it follows the changes in migratory patterns and control of crossborder migration by the Vietnamese state, from the collectivization era to the early Đổi Mới reforms and into the post-Cold War era. In so doing, it demonstrates that while negotiations between border crossers and the state around the social acceptance (“licit-ness”) and illegality of cross-border migration were invisible during the 1980s and 1990s, they have come to the fore since the 2000s. Despite the border being legally closed in the 1980s and 1990s, undocumented migration as a livelihood strategy was rampant due to the porous nature of the border. In the 2000s, the border began to be officially opened to local people and simultaneously function as a political boundary to regulate belonging and identities. The changes in migratory patterns indicate that the mapping and establishment of a national border alone is not enough to etch it in the minds of people, especially minorities who have connections with people in the neighboring country. Rather, a border “hardens” through continuous negotiations between state actors, who become suspicious of influence from a foreign country, and cross-border migrants, who become dependent on the state for their needs.

Keywords: cross-border migration, licit-ness, illegality, collectivization era, post-Cold War era, Khmer, Vietnam, Cambodia


This paper examines the history of cross-border migration by (primarily) Khmer residents of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta since 1975. Using a multiethnic village in a coastal province of Vietnam as an example case, it follows the changes in migratory patterns and control of cross-border migration by the Vietnamese state, from the collectivization era (1975–86)1) to the early Đổi Mới (renovation) reform era (1986–mid-1990s) and into the post-Cold War era (from the late 1990s). In so doing, it demonstrates that although migrants have crossed the border to take advantage of political and economic differences between Cambodia and Vietnam as a livelihood strategy for decades, the Vietnam-Cambodia border has begun to effectively function as a political boundary to regulate their belonging and identities only since the early 2000s. This regulation of cross-border migration is a result of a new political calculus on the part of (1) local residents, who have become dependent on the Vietnamese state for economic and religious needs, (2) local governments in the delta, which are suspicious of human and information flows from Cambodia, and (3) the Vietnamese state, which officially protects ethnic Khmer.

Ambiguities and the political instability of the boundary between Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and Cambodia have abounded since before colonization. Nguyen Phuc Anh began to govern the delta at the end of the eighteenth century and eventually unified almost all provinces of today’s Vietnam under a single state, officially declaring the foundation of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802. The Nguyen Dynasty indirectly began to govern the Mekong Delta through local political leaders, but it lost control of many parts of the delta when Khmer rebellions against the centralization erupted in the 1830s (Kitagawa 2006, 182–183, 190, 221–222; Vũ Đức Liêm 2016, 89–91). As Vũ Đức Liêm observes, the Nguyen Dynasty attempted to demarcate boundaries (giới) by digging canals such as the Vinh Te canal, which is located not far from today’s national border, and to translate those physical markers into cartography. It did not, however, differentiate provincial boundaries from the national border when managing the “Khmer world” (Vũ Đức Liêm 2016, 93), and in that sense it can be said that the modern national border did not emerge during the Nguyen Dynasty. In the late nineteenth century, the delta and Cambodia were integrated into a federation of states known as French Indochina.2) Although the administrative line drawn between the two regions during the French era began to work as a national border in 1954, intensification of the Vietnam War during the 1960s, when several political forces collided,3) brought disorder to the borderland (Chandler 2008, 242–249). Even during wartime, people created many open-air marketplaces along the border in areas uncontrolled by the states (Lê Hương 1970, 10), and people migrated from Southern Vietnam to Cambodia to seek a higher Buddhist education or livelihood. However, as the Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia, notably in 1970—when the Norodom Sihanouk regime was overthrown in a coup by general Lon Nol, whose army units massacred hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians near Phnom Penh on the dubious grounds that they were allied with the Communists (Chandler 2008, 251)—a large number of Vietnamese citizens in Cambodia returned to Vietnam.4)

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, conflict between the unified Vietnamese government and the Khmer Rouge increased political tensions in the borderland. These tensions eased when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and established a pro-Vietnam government in Phnom Penh in 1979. Starting in 1975, the Vietnamese socialist economy stagnated, making it difficult for people to make a living. This, combined with the easing of border tensions, spurred people in the delta not only to flee Vietnam by sea as “boat people” but also to migrate overland to Cambodia and then to Thailand as refugees, laborers, or traders to access means of livelihood. Migration continued throughout the 1980s and increased in the early 1990s, when the economic boom in Phnom Penh under the governance of the United Nations offered promise in the face of the social dislocation and economic difficulty caused by Đổi Mới reforms and a new market-oriented economy in Vietnam.

According to Evan Gottesman (2003, 165–168), during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, the Vietnamese military established checkpoints along the border; and anyone from Vietnam who attempted to flee to Thailand via Cambodia was detained, disciplined, and forced to return to Vietnam. Gottesman also notes, however, that cross-border smuggling may have been secretly permitted by both the Hanoi and Phnom Penh governments during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Indeed, we know that Cambodian timber and rubber were smuggled into Vietnam, and beer and Vietnamese electric generators were smuggled into Cambodia (Gottesman 2003, 311–314). Research conducted for this paper confirms that from 1979 through the 1990s local migrants crossed the border using informal routes to avoid checkpoints, suggesting that border control was ineffective and undocumented migration occurred during that time.

It is generally assumed that the decollectivization and market liberalization stimulated by Đổi Mới reforms in 1986 eased economic difficulties in Vietnam on the whole, though there were still many poor in rural areas, especially areas with high ethnic minority populations, and the gap between the rich and the poor tended to widen (see Vo Tri Thanh and Pham Hoang Ha 2004, 83–84). According to Philip Taylor (2004), the result of decollectivization and land liberalization policies was that increasing numbers of Mekong Delta farmers had to sell their land and thus had—and still have—less access than ever to the profits from the delta’s agricultural economy.5) Taylor also mentions briefly that many farmers in the delta, especially Khmer people who missed out on many benefits of the liberal reforms, sought work in the urban centers of the delta, or in nearby cities such as Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (Taylor 2004, 237, 245, 252). Taking into consideration these arguments over Đổi Mới, this paper puts into focus the pattern of those who, failing to cope with the rapid penetration of the market economy, began to migrate to Cambodia in order to seek a livelihood.

Andrew Hardy observes, “at the heart of the Đổi Mới transition lay the process of land decollectivisation and it was this, above all, that undermined the state’s control over population mobility” (Hardy 2003a, 124). While Hardy’s (2003a; 2003b) research focuses mainly on the contemporary history of government-sponsored and spontaneous internal migration from the northern Red River Delta to Vietnam’s highlands, Iwai, Ono, and Ota analyze migrations from the Red River Delta to the floodplain of the southern Mekong Delta since the Đổi Mới reforms (Iwai et al. 2016). This paper deals with cross-border migration between Southern Vietnam and Cambodia as an extension of such internal migrations.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Vietnam gradually returned to international society, accelerating its market economy. Subsequent economic growth during the 2000s witnessed an explosion of industries around Ho Chi Minh City, which began to absorb the rural population. Reflecting this pattern, some people who had moved to Cambodia returned to their home in Vietnam due to its improving social and economic situation. In tandem with this phenomenon, control of migrants crossing the Vietnam-Cambodia border intensified and became more firmly institutionalized from the 2000s, as the government became more suspicious of the human and information flows from Cambodia.

One notable exception to this pattern is the regulation of Khmer monks from Vietnam crossing the border to study in Cambodia. This movement has been strictly regulated since 1975, due to Vietnam’s concern over those monks being influenced by the environment of anti-Vietnamese politics in Cambodia, as Taylor’s ethnographic studies observe (Taylor 2014, 59; 2016, 282–285).6) While Taylor’s research stresses Khmer monks’ migration to and from Cambodia, this paper focuses on the interaction between laypeople’s migration and state control, whose pattern is different from that of the monks.

Timothy Gorman and Alice Beban (2016) reveal that contemporary migrant workers from Vietnam cross the Cambodian border as farmers to cultivate shrimp, and Sango Mahanty (2019) analyzes traders circulating between Vietnam and Cambodia to buy and transport cassava. According to these studies, in order to mitigate their legally unstable position or to facilitate the transnational trade of cash crops, these border crossers voluntarily attempt to establish ties with state actors, such as border guards, military personnel, or local authorities.

Some migrants circulating between both countries today survive by making use of the social insurance provided to the poor in Vietnam and the economic boom of Cambodia’s borderlands. In so doing, they rely not only on the state’s insurance programs but also on middlemen in their homeland to arrange official documents such as passports and ID cards.

By explaining the historical changes in cross-border migration trends, this paper betters our understanding of why migrants from Vietnam have come to depend more on state actors since the 2000s. The paper is structured as follows. The first section presents an overview of the migration between Vietnam and Cambodia while reviewing some literature on borders and migration. After explaining the field site of P. village in the second section, the paper details the patterns of undocumented migration during Vietnam’s collectivization era (1975–86) in the third section, and during the early Đổi Mới reform era (1986–mid-1990s) in the fourth section. The fifth section discusses the circulation of migrants and Vietnamese regulation of the border and migrants in the post-Cold War era (from the late 1990s). In examining the changing migration trends and state regulations, this paper concludes that while interactions between border crossers and the state around the social acceptance (or “licit-ness”) and illegality of cross-border migration were invisible during the 1980s and 1990s (when undocumented migration was rampant despite the border being legally closed), they have come to the fore since the 2000s, when the border was institutionally opened to local people.

I Creation of a Border

In Southeast Asian historical studies, it is assumed that since the mapping and demarcation of modern national borders, the formation of the state and creation of nationhood have been actively pursued (Thongchai 1994). The border gradually emerges in people’s imagination of a nation through migration control policies such as exclusion or greater scrutiny (Osada 2011). Given this “hardening” of borders, some studies focus on how migrants strategically take advantage of social and economic differences on either side of the border, engaging in sophisticated cross-border smuggling using various, often corrupt, networks (Tagliacozzo 2005; Ishikawa 2010).

Itty Abraham and Willem van Schendel (2005) refer to the borderland as both a “licit” and an illegal space. They define licit activities not as permissible by law, but rather in contrast to the popular sense of “illicit” activities; in other words, licit activities are legally banned but socially sanctioned and protected. The borderland is a space formed by the intersection of multiple competing authorities and enforcements. Neighboring states often hold different views on both the law and licit-ness. As a result, what is considered licit, or what may be allowed on one side of the border, may be considered strictly illegal and not allowed on the other side. As people cross borders to work in sweatshops and brothels to avoid labor regulations or the vice police, strategic interactions or “border games” ensue between border enforcers and unauthorized border crossers (Abraham and Schendel 2005, 22–23).

In light of the border and migrant studies mentioned above, the case of P. village in Vietnam raises the question of how concretely migrants have etched the national border in their minds as a “boundary” to differentiate their own society from the society on the other side of the border. Many people in P. village migrated to Cambodia during the 1980s and 1990s to escape economic difficulty. This undocumented migration was not fully controlled by either of the two states, whose lax governments did not trace the mobility of border crossers after their initial border crossing or during long stays. This enabled the people in P. village to continue to recognize their own homeland and Cambodia as a mutually connected cultural and economic space, even after the establishment of the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Border crossing through informal routes was frequent at least until the 1990s, as border crossers relied on backstreets along the border, long-distance family or relative networks, personal experiences, and middlemen preparing land or sea transport. The cases from P. village demonstrate that the Vietnam-Cambodia border was not clearly “etched in the minds of people” as a boundary to regulate mobility or identities, and it did not strictly function as a political institution, as it was virtually porous and permeable until the late 1990s. Schendel (2005, 52) notes that the permeability of a border can differ along its length based on physical features, intensive policing of a particular section, cross-border agreements, and the varying degrees of physical or linguistic difference between borderlanders on either side. Due to a combination of these factors, the Vietnam-Cambodia border was very porous, and although not strictly legal, migration between the countries was habitual and licit, in that it was socially sanctioned among P. villagers and even overlooked and tolerated by the states.

However, the Vietnamese state has paid increasing attention to this undocumented migration and lack of border governance, especially since the early 2000s. Today the Vietnamese government pays particular attention to Khmer people crossing the border, due to the sensitivity of the territorial politics of the Mekong Delta, which in Cambodia is still called Lower Cambodia (Kampuchea Kr[a]om) and considered a territory taken by Vietnam. In the late 1970s, the Pol Pot regime raided the borderland on the Vietnam side with the aim of reclaiming the Mekong Delta (Chanda 1986, 96–98). However, the political presence of Khmer in the delta was temporarily forgotten when the pro-Vietnam government was installed in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Following Vietnam’s withdrawal of troops from Cambodia, the Vietnamese government lacked the ability to prevent local residents from crossing the border, and serious political problems relating to the border, migrants, and Khmer ethnicity did not surface until the late 1990s. However, since the early 2000s, as people, goods, and information from Cambodia have continued to flow into Vietnam, the Vietnamese government has become concerned that if the Khmer people have more contact with Cambodian society, previous political issues might resurface. The regulation of migrants from P. village, many of whom identify as ethnic Khmer, is closely connected with Vietnam-Cambodia border governance. As explained below, only since the 2000s have interactions between unauthorized migrants and territorial states around the licit-ness and illegality of cross-border migrations started to make themselves visible. This has happened even in P. village, which is located quite far from the border.

II Methodology and Field Site

This paper is based on oral histories and ethnographic data collected in P. village ()7) between December 2010 and March 2012. I lived and conducted fieldwork in the village for 15 months, collecting ethnographic data about society-state relations in everyday lives and oral histories of people’s survival strategies to avoid subsistence crises during wartime, the collectivization era, the early Đổi Mới reform era, and the post-Cold War era. I also conducted several one- to two-week research trips in the borderlands of Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as Phnom Penh, to gather information related to migration trends.

P. village is located 150 km from the Cambodian border on the east bank of the Bassac River in Soc Trang, a coastal province in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Soc Trang is home to many ethnic Khmer who have remained connected with Cambodian society through their language and Theravada Buddhism even after national border demarcation in the mid-twentieth century. The ethnic Khmer have lived together and intermarried with ethnic Chinese and Viets (ethnic Kinh, the majority in Vietnam).8)

According to Vietnamese government statistics from 2009, ethnic Viets (Kinh) are the largest ethnic group in the Mekong Delta, accounting for about 92 percent of the population; ethnic Khmer account for around 7 percent and ethnic Chinese just 1 percent (see Table 1). Within the delta, Soc Trang is ethnically diverse, with 64 percent of the population ethnic Viet, 31 percent Khmer, and 5 percent Chinese. The province is also recognized as having the largest Khmer population in Vietnam and the largest Chinese population in the delta. Within Soc Trang Province, P. village has a higher percentage of Khmer residents. Government statistics from 2011 show that 79 percent of P. village is ethnic Khmer, followed by ethnic Viet (19 percent) and ethnic Chinese (2 percent).9) In my survey, according to the ethnicity registered with the government, of the 395 people living in “Samrong ward (khu),”10) Q. hamlet (ấp), P. village, 390 were ethnic Khmer, 3 were Viet, and 2 were Chinese. However, 170 of the 390 people registered as Khmer had Chinese (154), Viet (13), or both Chinese and Viet (3) kinship ties among their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents on their father’s, mother’s, or both sides. Intermarriage between different ethnic groups is common, and as a result many villagers today identify themselves as ethnically mixed, or métis (in Vietnamese [VN], lai; in Khmer [KH], cat), and speak multiple languages.


Table 1 Populations of Vietnam, Mekong Delta, Soc Trang, and P. Village



Most residents of P. village maintain connections with Cambodian society through the Khmer language and Theravada Buddhism. Despite its distance from the Cambodian border, the village has two Khmer temples, from which monks, since at least the early twentieth century, have traveled to temples in Cambodia to undertake higher religious and secular education or to engage in meditation practices (Shimojo 2015, 24–33). The majority of villagers have relatives and acquaintances who travel to Cambodia for work, and many routinely cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

Examining changes in the local politics of P. villagers’ migration patterns enhances our understanding of the Vietnam-Cambodia border and cross-border migration for two reasons. First, the mobility of ethnic Khmer, who are the majority in P. village and in Cambodia, often leads the Vietnamese state to give importance to regulating the border and cross-border migration. Second, the village’s location far from the border exemplifies broader changes in migratory patterns in the Mekong Delta more accurately than a location on the border, reflecting which state (Cambodia or Vietnam) or which economic center (Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City) historically attracted people in the delta in response to the economic and political conditions of each era. Analysis of societies located in the borderlands, where people routinely cross the border for their economic and social needs, may not reveal such historical migratory patterns.

III Migration during the Collectivization Era (1975–86)

III-1 Refugee Migration

Refugees who fled Vietnam from 1975 to 1986 during collectivization were generally regarded as “boat people” who crossed the ocean (vượt biển). However, many migrants in P. village evacuated over land, relying on their local knowledge of Cambodian society to move from Vietnam to Thailand via Cambodia. The number of such people from P. village increased after early 1979.

Following the reunification of North and South Vietnam, the socialist regimes of Vietnam, China, and Cambodia entered a new phase in their interrelations, shifting from an outward “fraternal” cooperation (in support of Communist revolutionary movements) during the Vietnam War era to “fratricidal” conflict in the post-Vietnam War era. The Pol Pot regime spread anti-Vietnam sentiments, insisted on claiming territorial rights to the Mekong Delta, and frequently collided with Vietnamese military personnel stationed in the borderlands. Ultimately, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and occupied Phnom Penh in January 1979. To support the Pol Pot regime, China invaded Vietnam in February 1979, fighting in the Sino-Vietnam borderland (Elliott 1981, 8–10; Evans and Rowley 1984, 39, 45–57; Chanda 1986, 231–262; Kimura 1996, 76–90).

Due to the two international wars, ethnic Khmer and Chinese, and métis Khmer- and Chinese-Viets in P. village—whose loyalty to Vietnam was now suspect—were placed in a politically sensitive situation. In addition to the worsening of China-Vietnam state relations, most had lost their livelihoods due to the Communist government’s promotion of collective farming and redistribution of land, its direct purchase of food, and its establishment of a rationing system. Landlords, rice merchants, millers, and shopkeepers who had engaged in the production and distribution of exported rice were forced to close their businesses.

In response to the political and economic situation, some people decided to flee by land. Com (a Chinese-métis Khmer), a family member of a once-rich landlord in P. village, described the journeys of his younger brother and sister:

In Vietnam at that time, people were forced to participate in labor service [VN: công tác, KH: polakam], but they had no work of their own and no way to earn money. My younger brother crossed the Cambodia border and arrived in Thailand in 1979. He moved from Thailand to the Philippines by boat, and in the end he migrated to Canada. My younger sister and her husband arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand via Cambodia and migrated to Canada. Her husband had been engaged in the “revolution’s work,” but he had a difficult life.11)

As Com’s brother-in-law’s case reveals, the refugees included those who had participated in the “revolution’s work” as cadres of the new government, indicating that economic difficulty was a more serious factor than political positions when deciding to flee. Having local knowledge of Cambodia was also an important factor for those choosing to flee by land. Com’s eldest stepsister, Sang (an ethnic Khmer), pointed out that her younger brother had been sent to Phnom Penh as a South Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War, and therefore he was familiar with the city.12)

Upon Vietnam’s successful invasion of Cambodia, tensions in the borderlands caused by the international conflict rapidly eased and more people fled overland, defying the border and making use of their own language and past experiences.

III-2 Circulating Migration

Beginning in 1979, migrant workers and traders as well as refugees repeatedly passed thorough the porous border. Some people in P. village circulated repeatedly between Vietnam and Cambodia. Rat, an ethnic Khmer, said:

After the liberation, I didn’t engage in collective farming because it was troublesome. After the Pol Pot regime collapsed in 1979, I traveled every two weeks between Phnom Penh and P. village as a ku roup [painter]. I sold pictures for 5,000 riel each until I stopped going to Phnom Penh one year later. In Vietnam fertilizer and agricultural chemicals were scarce and the land was not fertile, but business was free in Cambodia. I passed through Kompot in Cambodia via Ha Tien by car to go to Phnom Penh. I didn’t cross the formal border but entered Cambodia by an informal route.13)

Although ku roup in Khmer means “painter,” strictly speaking Rat was not a painter. To earn money in Cambodia, he collected pictures of deceased people from bereaved families and brought those pictures to a painter in P. village. The painter created portraits of the deceased, and Rat then returned to Cambodia to sell them to the bereaved families.

Rat went to Cambodia not only because the restrictions on private activities in the black economy there were comparatively lax, but also because he was accustomed to Cambodian society. He had been to Phnom Penh as a monk to study Pali at Unalom Temple for a year in the late 1960s, as many Khmer monks in the delta had in the past. Rat could also take advantage of the informal car route connecting P. village with Phnom Penh via Ha Tien and Kompot (see Fig. 1) that was being created at the time. Rat’s narrative shows that repeated border crossing was possible because of the porous border.



Fig. 1 Mekong Delta and Vietnam-Cambodia Border

Source: Esri, GEBCO, DeLorme, NaturalVue | Esri, GEBCO, IHO-IOC GEBCO, DeLorme, NGS.


In the mid-1980s, some people even migrated to Thailand via Cambodia to engage in undocumented work. Han said:

I went to Thailand by car without a passport to work as a laborer [KH: kammakor], from 1986 to 1992. First I stayed in Phnom Penh for half a month, and after that I moved to Thailand. I did physical labor like loading and earned about 20 baht per day. The pay was a little bit better in Cambodia than in Vietnam at that time. Both Vietnam and Cambodia were under Communist rule, but Thailand was a liberal country. I stayed in Surin Province, Thailand, and I worked on a cassava farm for 20 baht per day. I could understand 80 percent of the Surin Khmer dialect. I don’t know which road I used to cross the border, because I just went along with others and got into a car. I was a manual laborer [KH: si chhunual ke]. Vietnam was very poor, and furthermore, we were obligated to participate in labor service for one month per year. Although I had farmland in 1985, we only produced one annual rice crop, which was not profitable.14)

It was possible for P. villagers, many of whom could speak Khmer, to work not only in Cambodia but also in Surin Province, Thailand, where many ethnic Khmer resided. Han’s narrative reveals that groups of migrant workers from Vietnam crossed the border via informal routes with the help of mediators who prepared transportation for workers’ groups to Cambodia and Thailand.

The two narratives above show that people from Vietnam went to Cambodia seeking less intervention in their lives and a freer economic space. After the Pol Pot regime was driven out of Phnom Penh in 1979, many people in the delta, especially Khmer speakers, crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border to escape difficulties in their lives brought about by state policies. Migration from Vietnam to Cambodia and Thailand during collectivization, not only to escape the political situation but also to partake in cross-border trade and migrant work, was possible because in the face of political chaos, the state powers could not control the porous border and the human flows searching for informal routes and work. During this time, although cross-border and internal migration was legally banned or restricted, it was socially licit in P. village and carried on across informal routes stretching from the village to Cambodia and on to Thailand. In that sense, the Vietnam-Cambodia border at the time did not function as a political apparatus to regulate interactions between migrants and the state or to functionally regulate the licit-ness or illegality of migrations.

IV Migration during the Early Đổi Mới Era (1986–mid-1990s)

IV-1 Withdrawal of the Vietnamese Military from Cambodia

At the beginning of the 1990s, the political situation in Cambodia began to change, prompted by the withdrawal of the Vietnamese military from that country. For a decade, Vietnam and the pro-Vietnam government in Cambodia (the Cambodian People’s Party) had fought with Pol Pot’s guerrillas and other anti-Vietnam forces that were supported by China and several Western countries. However, after mediation by the Soviet Union, which hoped to normalize its relations with China, Vietnam began to withdraw its military from Cambodia in June 1988, completing its withdrawal in September 1989 (Kimura 1996, 222–232; Gottesman 2003, 336–350). After the withdrawal, the political situation in Cambodia began to rapidly and drastically change. In 1991 the pro-Vietnam government and anti-Vietnam forces in Cambodia concluded the Paris Peace Accords. In 1993 the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) implemented a parliamentary election, which resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia and major changes in the country’s politics and economy. By 1989 the Cambodian People’s Party government had all but abandoned the socialist economic system, and in 1993 the new Kingdom of Cambodia government officially introduced a market economy system (Gottesman 2003, 280–300; Amakawa 2004, 4–14).

The change in the military power balance, political pluralization, and the introduction of a market economy in the early 1990s further motivated people in P. village to attempt to cross the border to escape economic difficulties.

IV-2 Undocumented Migration of the Poor into Cambodia

During the period of political change in Cambodia, the number of migrant workers from P. village seeking to escape economic difficulties increased to levels higher than the 1980s. The villagers I interviewed said that in the early 1990s the Cambodian economy was better than the Vietnamese economy, and that a significant number of Vietnamese citizens lived in Phnom Penh. In Samrong ward, Q. hamlet of P. village, the number of migrants going to Phnom Penh to work was markedly increased from 1992 to 2002 (see Table 2). To determine how and why people went to Phnom Penh, I analyzed the oral histories of several people in P. village who had made border crossings.


Table 2 Reasons for Migrating to Phnom Penh from Samrong Ward, 1979–2011 (unit: one person)



The main reason why people migrated to Cambodia was their inability to cope with the rapid development of the market economy in Vietnam after the initiation of Đổi Mới in 1986. Đổi Mới reforms brought private economic activities that had been part of the black economy during the Collectivization Era out into the open. As people began to engage in a wider range of crop productions, commercial production was diversified. In P. village, the cultivation of watermelon was popular at the end of the 1980s. According to an official monograph published by the communist party in Soc Trang province in 1988, trucks from Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho would gather at P. village just before Tet (the lunar new year), and merchants would purchase watermelon produced in the village (Vũ Lân et al. 1988, 61).

Than, a Khmer-métis Chinese villager who lived in Samrong ward, Q. hamlet of P. village, told me that he cultivated watermelons from 1988 to 1990. He and his wife transported the harvest by bus to sell in Ho Chi Minh City. The variety of watermelon he grew was large but did not taste very good, so he could sell the fruit only as decoration for the Tet celebration. Since he could harvest only once per year, Than found it increasingly difficult to make sufficient profit from this endeavor and eventually stopped. After that he mortgaged his farmland to Hang, who was also a resident of Samrong ward, for 100 kg of rice at twofold interest before going to Phnom Penh (rice was desired because it was a valuable currency during the economic dislocation of the time).15) Although some people, such as Than, attempted to produce new agricultural products, they did not receive any state support in the form of technical assistance, investments, loans, etc. Thus, they were at high risk of failure or becoming dependent on private moneylenders such as Hang, who often charged high interest rates.

Than said that he went to Phnom Penh for a year and a half from 1991 to 1992 with his wife and youngest daughter. Without a passport, he crossed the border not through a border gate but via an informal route. He worked as a traveling wharf laborer in a town near Phnom Penh, loading commodities onto a ship and traveling on the ship to Saigon, where he unloaded the items, and then repeating the cycle.16)

People moved to Cambodia also to be closer to relatives. According to Than, his adopted brother (his parents’ adopted child) had lived in Phnom Penh since 1982, so Than went to Phnom Penh relying on his relationship with his brother. His brother earned enough to live on, working in a factory manufacturing bottle lids. Than said that when he lived in Phnom Penh, he met many ethnic Viets who had migrated from Vietnam.17)

Don, another P. villager, went to Phnom Penh with his family to work during the 1990s due to food shortages, insufficient profit from agriculture, and lack of agricultural expertise. He explained that he had sold all of his land because his wife was sick and his five children were very young.18) According to his acquaintance, Don sold his land because, like many other villagers, he had failed in his watermelon cultivation enterprise.19)

Thus, Don went to Phnom Penh to escape the economic difficulties experienced by farmers in rural villages in the Mekong Delta and to take advantage of the economic boom in Cambodia. Under UNTAC, Phnom Penh offered a significant economic incentive that attracted poor wage laborers: US dollars were used by the foreign militaries stationed there, and the value of the US dollar was much more stable than that of Vietnamese đồng or Cambodian riel.

Don’s wife said that during the 1990s only agricultural wage labor such as rice harvesting was available in Vietnam. The average daily wage of a manual laborer in Cambodia was 5,000 riel for a woman and 8,000 riel for a man, but it was just 4,000 riel in Vietnam.20) In Phnom Penh, Don’s wife took care of housework while Don worked as a carpenter for 150,000 đồng per day.21) According to Don’s wife, the potential earnings in Phnom Penh meant that not only Khmer people born in Vietnam, but also many ethnic Viets, lived in Cambodia.22)

The final reason why Don’s family chose to go to Phnom Penh was that Don’s older sister had moved there before the Pol Pot regime was established,23) although, according to Don,24) she died during the Pol Pot era. Don’s wife explained that one reason they chose not to go to Ho Chi Minh City was because they had no acquaintances there. Thus, Don’s family chose to go to Phnom Penh to work because the city was not an unknown place. The experience of Don and others highlights the importance of family or acquaintance networks in choosing the routes migrants traveled along and their destinations.

During the 1990s, like the 1980s, circulating migrants traded commodities and worked in the borderlands of the two countries. Con, who lived in P. village, told me that in the early 1990s there was no work in Vietnam and wages were extremely low, even in Ho Chi Minh City. To earn money, he traveled repeatedly between Cambodia and Vietnam from 1992 to 1993. His father, Rat, as mentioned above, also repeatedly crossed between Cambodia and Vietnam as a ku roup (painter) around 1979, after the collapse of the Pol Pot regime. Con said that he also went twice a month to Takeo Province in Cambodia, near the Vietnam-Cambodia border, by local bus (xe đò) and collected pictures of deceased people by going door to door. Without a passport, he crossed the border either near Cam Mountain in Tinh Bien District or Sam Mountain in Chau Doc city in An Giang Province (see Fig. 1). His maternal uncle had migrated to Cambodia in the 1980s and worked as a goldsmith in Takeo Province.25) Con stayed at his uncle’s house.

The photographs in Fig. 2 are of the area surrounding a rice packaging factory located near the border in Tinh Bien District, An Giang Province in Vietnam, which is adjacent to Takeo Province in Cambodia. The borderland is located in a vast floodplain area, which is often inundated during the rainy season. The photographs show that there is no natural geography or official facilities to prevent people from crossing the border. In terms of intensive policing (Schendel 2005, 52), the Vietnam-Cambodia border, notably the Tinh Bien-Takeo borderlands, was more porous and permeable for people in P. village during the early Đổi Mới era than during the collectivization era. In addition, because internal migration was tolerated by the government after Đổi Mới, more and more people relied on informal and licit routes that had been continuously developed in several places since pre-Đổi Mới times, and where licit middlemen and networks prepared ships or land vehicles to enable cross-border migration.26)



Fig. 2 Landscape of the Vietnam-Cambodia Borderland Visible from Tinh Bien District, An Giang Province

Sources: Left: Satellite photo obtained from DigitalGlobe, Earthstar Geographics | NOSTRA, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS.
Right: Photograph looking toward the Vietnam-Cambodia border taken by the author at the location of the white spot in the photograph on the left.


IV-3 Economic Attraction of Phnom Penh in the Early 1990s

Whereas some people, such as Than, Don, and Con, relied on connections with family or relatives to go to Cambodia, others went based on their own experiences. For example, Thu, a Chinese-métis Khmer woman from P. village, had lived in Phnom Penh with her late husband from 1968 to 1973 or 1974, during the Vietnam War. After the initiation of Đổi Mới she was too poor to keep her land, so she sold it and returned with her five children to Phnom Penh, where she lived from 1992 to 2010. Without passports, Thu’s family took a local bus with what little money they had and crossed the border via an informal route in Tinh Bien District. When the family arrived in Phnom Penh, Thu found that all of her husband’s brothers had died during the Pol Pot era, and therefore she had no acquaintances left in the city. According to Thu, the prices of commodities in Cambodia in the 1990s were higher than those in Vietnam, but wages were better because Cambodia was economically more liberal. In 1993, when the United Nations established UNTAC, US currency became widely used in Cambodia. Thu opened a kiosk and sold food, while her children worked as laborers. She said that many ethnic Viets lived in Phnom Penh at that time. According to her, ethnic Viets, who comprised a larger population than Kampuchea Krom (Khmer born in Vietnam),27) spoke the Khmer language fluently and operated street stalls in the city.28)

During the early 1990s, people migrated to Cambodia because it offered better economic opportunities (including relatively higher wages). Although economically motivated, such migration relied on long-distance family or relative networks and personal experiences. The number of people crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia increased sharply in the early 1990s due to the rural economic depression in the Mekong Delta and political and economic transformation in Cambodia. Finally, undocumented border crossings were not fully controlled by the government because border governance at that time had not been sufficiently developed, and people noticed that many points along the border were still porous, especially in Tinh Bien District. Depending on family and other networks, and past memories and experiences connecting the two countries, people created informal and socially licit routes stretching out from their village toward the border and beyond.

V Migrants and Border Control in the Post-Cold War Era (from the Late 1990s)

V-1 People Circulating Legally between Vietnam and Cambodia

As mentioned above, the political and economic situation in Vietnam began to change in the 1990s. Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995, resulting in the removal of an embargo on external assistance, trade, investment, and loans entering the country. The main reasons for this change were the United States beginning to lift its economic sanctions on Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, the lifting of the US embargo on Vietnam in February 1994, and the US normalizing its diplomatic relations with Vietnam two weeks after the latter joined ASEAN (Kimura 1996, 283–285; Elliott 2012, 147–155). Vietnam became increasingly accessible to international society, and it became easier for Vietnamese who had moved overseas to return home to live.

The flow of people from P. village changed in line with the transformation in international politics. The major destination for people from P. village gradually changed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, the economic center of Vietnam, as the economic lure of Phnom Penh weakened. As shown in Table 3, the number of workers from Samrong ward migrating to Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding suburbs was markedly increased between 2001 and 2011. Many of the migrants found work at timber- or fruit-processing companies, industries that were growing rapidly around Ho Chi Minh City. In contrast, the number of workers migrating to Phnom Penh was low between 2003 and 2011 (see Table 2). However, the number of people traveling to Phnom Penh to visit family members increased between 2001 and 2010, suggesting that although the transnational relationship between P. village and Phnom Penh remained, the number of people moving to Phnom Penh for economic purposes was decreasing.


Table 3 Migrant Workers from Samrong Ward in Ho Chi Minh City and Its Suburbs by Type of Work, 1997–2011 (unit: one person)



In P. village, I often saw middle-aged or elderly people staying in the village for a few days or months but then suddenly leaving without notice. They would come from Cambodia and spend their time at a coffee shop engaging in enthusiastic chitchat with villagers regarding current news and rumors from Cambodia. They stayed with their children who lived in the village.

Some P. villagers earned enough to live in both countries by making strategic use of each country’s unique political and economic situation. For example, Son, who was staying temporarily in P. village in August 2011, told me:

From 1978 to 1979 I worked as a laborer in Ho Chi Minh City, but from 1983 to 1990 I migrated to Cambodia to work. In Cambodia, I sold bread as a day laborer. After that I returned to Vietnam, but even today I go to Cambodia every four or five months. At the moment I am staying in P. village for three or four days until my passport is renewed, and then I plan to return to Cambodia. Every time I cross the border, I do so in Tinh Bien District. There are three casinos in Ratanakiri [Cambodia]. One of them is managed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The casino’s customers come mostly from Vietnam, so my daughter works there because she can speak Vietnamese. I have no land in Vietnam, but I have 20–30 công (2.6–3.9 ha) of land in Ratanakiri.29) There are rubber tree plantations, and some foreigners are mining for gold there. In Vietnam, I can use medical services for free because I am recognized as a “poor household” by the government. Every time I get sick, I come back to Vietnam. When I have spent all of my money, I call my daughter and ask her to send me USD200–300.30)

Son survives thanks to the social insurance for the poor in Vietnam and the economic boom in the Cambodian borderlands. He went to Cambodia and worked as a laborer in an undocumented way at least until the 1990s, as did many villagers. As he recently verified his Vietnamese citizenship by getting a passport, he now simultaneously uses the preferential treatment for poor households in Vietnam while depending for money on his daughter who works at a casino near the border in Cambodia. Only foreigners are permitted to gamble at casinos in Vietnam, so many casinos have been built in the borderland on the Cambodian side, catering to customers from Vietnam.

V-2 Government Suspicion of Khmer Cross-border Migrants

Why is Son recognized by the Vietnamese government as belonging to a poor household, and how can he use the Vietnamese social insurance system? Starting in 2001, Vietnam’s government implemented policies to eliminate poor households, especially among ethnic minorities in the Mekong Delta.31) Today the local government in P. village gives high priority to social insurance policies for poor Khmer households. The government exempts these households from school expenses and provides housing or assistance for their living expenses.32) However, this special status is based on stereotypes and suspicion against Khmer within the Vietnamese government and society, which have historically considered Khmer to be poor. An official 1991 Communist Party document reports that ethnic Khmer do not receive enough of an education; therefore, some ethnic Khmer Communist Party members violate national policies because they do not understand the meaning of the ethnic and religious policies of the Party-state. The document also notes that the matter has had a negative impact on society, the economy, sentiment, thought, and politics.33) Therefore, the government now focuses on Khmer people in order to avoid such negative impacts. The document continues:

We must fight against the plots and means of the hostile forces who make use of historical issues, religious ethnic problems, and trifling mistakes, and distort plans, cause splits, stir up ethnic animosity, spread nasty rumors, and disrupt the implementation of the advocacies and policies of the Party-state.
 We organize and support ethnic Khmer in Southern Vietnam who hope to cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border to visit their relatives and acquaintances based on state laws, while restricting border crossings between the two countries. That is, we take people’s convenience into consideration while protecting public order in both our country and our neighboring country.34)

Thus, the Vietnamese government constructed a social insurance system for ethnic Khmer in Vietnam, a border control system, and a system to regulate migrants in order to eliminate negative impacts on the Party-state. In addition, the government, which was not stable enough to realize its political and economic policies until the 1990s, has attempted since the turn of the twenty-first century to integrate ethnic Khmer into the nation-state and cut off influence from Cambodia with the provision of social insurance.

One day in 2011, while staying in Soc Trang, I interviewed an official who recounted the following incident:

In 2009, before you came to Soc Trang, Khmer monks launched a protest against the government in Soc Trang Province. The protest broke out when traffic police arrested two monks for the violation of riding on the backseat of a motorbike. That affair was distorted and spread by evil people, who manipulated the monks into starting the protest. This incident is referred to as the “August Affair” among police.35)

Informants mentioned that the Vietnamese authorities were wary of “evil people,” or members of political organizations formed by Khmer going from Vietnam to Cambodia who identified themselves as “Khmer Kampuchea Krom (Khmer of Lower Cambodia).” Using various forms of media, such organizations accuse the Vietnamese Communist government of ignoring historical problems, human rights violations, and religious oppression of ethnic Khmer in Vietnam.

Taylor analyzes the contesting narratives as follows:

Although these contesting claims on the Khmers of Lower Cambodia/the Khmer minority of Vietnam are held with equal passion, each is coloured by deep ambivalence. Many Cambodians suspect that the Khmer Krom have been subject to Vietnamese assimilatory rule for so long that they are no longer fully Khmer. For their part, Vietnamese officials lament the recalcitrance of a minority group whom they label pejoratively as backward, insular and marginal, and whose continuing identification with Khmer nationalist mythology threatens the integrity of the Vietnamese nation. (Taylor 2014, 252)

How do these nationwide contestations affect local politics? The government has begun implementing conciliatory policies toward ethnic Khmer as it has become more cautious of them. For example, according to residents in P. village, although the government formerly fixed the date of Kathen—a Khmer festival after the end of the rainy season in which laypeople offer donations such as new robes to temples—since 2009 the authorities have allowed each temple to decide its own date on which to hold the festival.36) Also, during my stay in P. village, Communist Party members at the village, district, province, and even central government levels often visited Khmer temples during ritual ceremonies to donate large amounts of money.37)

While Vietnam’s government emphasizes that it is considerate of the Khmer ethnicity and religion in Vietnam, it remains extremely cautious, even when people try to import items for religious activities from Cambodia. A good example is the process of importing books of the Buddhist Pali canon (the representative Buddhist scripture). Theravada Buddhist temples have imported the canon from Cambodia for a long time. Even today, there is no publisher that can print the canon in the Khmer language in Vietnam, so temple representatives must go to Cambodia to buy the books themselves. However, bringing any books into Vietnam is a complicated process and requires support from a local official. Ke, who works as chairman of the Buon Temple Committee in P. village, recalled that in 2006 or 2007 he was able to buy the canon, but:

It took a total of two months to get my passport and complete the procedure. Than [a P. village policeman] offered to help me. It was necessary to get permission from the district committee to start the procedure. If we had imported the Pali canon without permission, it could have been confiscated. My wife and I hired a car and went to Phnom Penh with another policeman, the wife of the Party secretary in the village, and two monks. Although I invited Than, he was too busy with work to come with us. We bought about 100 volumes in a large building in Phnom Penh.38)

V-3 Role of Middlemen in Negotiating between the Local Community and the State

From 1998 to 2008, Than worked as a policeman and then as a member of the village people’s committee, and he has been a clerk for the Buon Temple Committee for a long time. He was a monk in the Buon Temple from 1971 to 1975 and can read and write both Khmer and Vietnamese, so he was responsible for the exchange of documents between the temple and the local government. Because he had experience dealing with affairs of public order and administration, he was the temple’s go-to person for government matters. He was also the preferred person for the temple to negotiate with the local government to obtain permission for religious activities and economic support from the secular authority. Than may be regarded as a middleman between his religious community and the secular authority.

Dealing with religious affairs was not his only work. As a sideline, he also instructed others on how to obtain official documents such as passports and ID cards. When I lived in P. village, people returning from or migrating to Cambodia would visit Than’s house and ask him to arrange the documents they needed. Than said that his monthly salary from the village people’s committee was only 830,000 đồng (USD41 in 2011) but he earned no less than USD50 per month through his side business.39)

The reason why Than could earn so much through this sideline is that the rate of literacy in the Vietnamese language among the villagers is very low, so most people are unable to deal with administrative procedures. The older people are, the more likely it is that they have received no public education.40) To avoid problems when dealing with administrative procedures, people are dependent on Than, who studied to junior high school level and is now a government official.

Than also has knowledge of administrative procedures relating to people who crossed the border without documents, such as those who moved to Cambodia from 1979 to the early 1990s without a passport or ID card and recently returned home. For example, Thu said that although she returned to Vietnam in 2010 after crossing the border without a passport in the early 1990s, she still had not received her Vietnamese citizen ID card as of 2012.41)

Although it seems that Thu does not have any intention of returning to Cambodia, many people still travel back and forth between the two countries. Because the local government exerts strict control over those crossing the border, migrants depend on middlemen such as Than who can help them obtain a passport and ID card. In fact, Than himself had been to Phnom Penh to work without possessing a passport in the early 1990s, and so he had a good understanding of the migrant’s situation.

Both the local community and the state need middlemen like Than. If the Vietnamese government attempts to excessively restrict the flow of migrants, singling out the movement of Khmer people across the border, the state’s legitimacy may be questioned, as it officially claims to be a multiethnic state that treats each of its 54 ethnicities equally. Excessive restrictions may upset residents who have historically been connected with Cambodian society though Theravada Buddhism. Mediated by local middlemen, cross-border migrants and the local government now negotiate over their belonging and identities regulated by the national border. In other words, after migrants and the state started to negotiate around the licit-ness and illegality of cross-border migrations, people had no choice but to be conscious of the border’s existence and their nationalities.


Cross-border movement has long been accepted as a licit (formally illegal but socially acceptable) (Abraham and Schendel 2005, 22–23) activity by the local community in P. village and overlooked by both the Vietnamese and Cambodian states. Even after the Vietnam War ended and North and South Vietnam were unified, state power was too limited to control the flow of refugees and migrant workers across the border, mainly because political control in the borderlands became lax with the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in 1979. The Đổi Mới reforms prompted the development of a market-oriented economy and a marked political transformation in both countries from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. However, the process of rapid market liberalization coupled with the lack of social insurance policies in Vietnam also sent many peasants in Vietnam into economic difficulty. They fled life in Vietnam, traveling without a passport or documents via informal routes and across the porous border to Cambodia, where political changes and the rise of the market economy were more intense, to find work. Licit middlemen and transnational human networks facilitated their movement by preparing sea or land vehicles along these routes, which had developed and adapted since the pre-Đổi Mới era. Although it is generally assumed that the Đổi Mới reforms drastically improved people’s livelihoods, this paper suggests the contrary. Without any official state support, people who decided to migrate due to the rural economic depression in Vietnam and the political and economic transformation in Cambodia had no choice but to rely on local moneylenders, family networks, and past experiences to secure livelihoods.

The situation changed in the early 2000s. Vietnam had joined ASEAN, accelerating its return to international society and the removal of many restrictions on the entry of foreign assistance into the country in the late 1990s. As a result, it experienced rapid economic development in the 2000s. Some people in P. village began to return to Vietnam from Cambodia due to the improving social and economic situation; others circulated between the two countries, taking advantage of better economic opportunities in Cambodia and the social insurance that the Vietnamese government began to provide. However, the establishment of greater political stability and a borderless market-oriented economy made Vietnam’s government recognize the importance of ensuring control of the border.

To this day, many of those who returned from Cambodia do not possess passports or official ID cards because they crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border during the 1980s and 1990s in an undocumented way. Local authorities in Vietnam continue their efforts to confirm the citizenship of these returnees, particularly because of the government’s concern that Khmer nationalists in Cambodia might instigate unrest among ethnic Khmer in Vietnam. Increasing amounts of information about Cambodia are reaching local communities in Vietnam through these returnees. Therefore, the Vietnamese government has recently attempted to regulate people’s movements and improve their recognition of the state’s territory by confirming citizenship and controlling the flow of information. At the same time, it is implementing insurance policies and conciliatory actions to appease ethnic Khmer.

These policies cut both ways. To deny the ethnicity and religion of the Khmer would call into question the legitimacy of the multiethnic state and produce discontent. Therefore, the government has no choice but to respect the ethnicity of Khmer in Vietnam while simultaneously denying the historical social ties between Khmer in Vietnam and Cambodia. For their part, local people are seeking out information and commodities from Cambodia and crossing the border as part of their everyday lives. The struggle between society and state reveals itself through middlemen who mitigate the concerns of both sides.

The situation in P. village reveals a dichotomy of social acceptance (licit-ness) and illegality with regard to migrants crossing the border. This dichotomy has recently become a political issue: as Vietnam’s government intensifies its control of Khmer migrants who cross the border, the contradiction of the Vietnamese state territory and the principles underlying the government’s ethnic and religious policies becomes more visible. Although the Vietnamese government has attempted to restrict the flow of migrants across the border and integrate them into the nation-state as an “ethnic minority,” excessive regulation of migration would reveal the contradiction with the state principle to equally protect ethnic minority cultures, and in turn create discontent in society. On the other hand, local people must increasingly depend on state actors in order to make strategic use of the social and economic differences between Cambodia and Vietnam while avoiding excessive state control.

Today the Vietnamese state and border crossers continue subtle negotiations over the latter’s belonging and identities, the duality of which has been socially sanctioned (licit) but is now becoming regulated by the national border, particularly through middlemen who meditate between the local government and migrants. Such negotiation was not visible during the 1980s and 1990s, when the border between the two countries was virtually porous despite being legally closed; it has become visible only since the early 2000s, when the political and economic situation of each country began to stabilize and mobility between the two countries was openly institutionalized and legalized. The changes in migratory patterns indicate that the national border, despite being mapped and officially established, is not always etched in the minds of people. This is especially true of minorities who have connections with people in the neighboring country. Rather, the national border begins to be etched through everyday and continuous interactions between state actors, who become suspicious of influence from a foreign country, and cross-border migrants, who become dependent on the state for their needs.

Accepted: August 4, 2020


I began writing this paper based on an earlier paper published in Japanese (Shimojo 2018), but thanks to the constructive criticism by anonymous reviewers, I was able to submit a completely revised version. I would like to thank the reviewers for their assistance related to previous studies and conceptualizations related to migration and borders, and editorial suggestions. In addition, I would like to thank my excellent copy editor, Jackie Imamura, who repeatedly proofread my unclear paper. All errors remain mine.


Published Sources
Abraham, Itty; and Schendel, Willem van. 2005. Introduction: The Making of Illicitness. In Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: States, Borders, and the Other Side of Globalization, edited by Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham, pp. 1–37. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Amakawa Naoko 天川直子. 2004. Josho ASEAN kameika no Kambojia: Shoseido to jittai no henka 序章 ASEAN加盟下のカンボジア―諸制度と実態の変化 [Introduction Cambodia in ASEAN: Changes in institutions and situation]. In Kambojia shinjidai カンボジア新時代 [Cambodia in a new era], edited by Amakawa Naoko 天川直子, pp. 3–47. Chiba: Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO.

Ban Chỉ Đạo Tổng điều tra dân số và nhà ở Trung Ương (BCĐTĐTDSVNƠTƯ) [Central population and housing census steering committee]. 2010. Tổng Điều tra dân số và nhà ở Việt Nam năm 2009: Kết quả toàn bộ [The 2009 Vietnam population and housing census: Completed results]. Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản Thống kê [Statistical publishing house].

Chanda, Nayan. 1986. Brother Enemy: The War after the War, A History of Indochina since the Fall of Saigon. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Chandler, David. 2008. A History of Cambodia. Fourth Edition. Boulder: Westview Press.

Elliott, David W. P. 2012. Changing Worlds: Vietnam’s Transition from Cold War to Globalization. New York: Oxford University Press.

―. 1981. The Third Indochina Conflict: Introduction. In The Third Indochina Conflict, edited by David W. P. Elliott, pp. 1–19. Boulder: Westview Press.

Evans, Grant; and Rowley, Kelvin. 1984. Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos since 1975. London and New York: Verso.

Gorman, Timothy; and Beban, Alice. 2016. Of Migrants and Middlemen: Cultivating Access and Challenging Exclusion along the Vietnam–Cambodia Border. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 57(2): 207–220.

Gottesman, Evan. 2003. Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hardy, Andrew. 2003a. State Visions, Migrant Decisions: Population Movements since the End of the Vietnam War. In Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society, edited by Hy Van Luong, pp. 107–137. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

―. 2003b. Red Hills: Migrants and the State in the Highlands of Vietnam. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Ishikawa Noboru. 2010. Between Frontiers: Nation and Identity in a Southeast Asian Borderland. Singapore: NUS Press.

Iwai Misaki 岩井美佐紀. 2001. Shudan ka kaitai iko no Kain-hau-sha ni okeru nogyo chinrodo no jittai ni kansuru ichi kosatsu 集団化解体以降のカインハウ社における農業賃労働の実態に関する一考察(特集 20世紀メコン・デルタの開拓)[A study of agricultural wage-labor in Khanh Hau Commune since decollectivization (Special issue: Land-use development in the Mekong Delta in the twentieth century)]. Tonan Ajia kenkyu 東南アジア研究 [Southeast Asian studies] 39(1): 120–136.

Iwai Misaki 岩井美佐紀; Ono Mikiko 大野美紀子; and Ota Shoichi 大田省一. 2016. Betonamu “shin-keizai-mura” no tanjo ベトナム「新経済村」の誕生 [The birth of Vietnam’s “new economic village”]. Chiba: Kanda Gaigo Daigaku Shuppankyoku (KUIS Press).

Kimura Tetsusaburo 木村哲三郎. 1996. Betonamu: To kanryo kokka no aratana chosen (Ajia gendaishi shirizu 5) ベトナム―党官僚国家の新たな挑戦(アジア現代史シリーズ5)[Vietnam: New challenge of the party bureaucratic state (Modern and contemporary Asian history series, 5)]. Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies.

Kitagawa Takako 北川香子. 2006. Kambojia shi saiko カンボジア史再考 [Rethinking Cambodian history]. Tokyo: Rengo Shuppan.

Lê Hương. 1970. Chợ trời biên giới Việt Nam Cao Miên [Border market between Vietnam and Cambodia]. Sài Gòn: Xuất bản Quình Lâm [Quinh Lam Publisher].

Mahanty, Sango. 2019. A Tale of Two Networks: Market Formation on the Cambodia-Vietnam Frontier. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 44(2): 1–16.

Murano Tsutomu 村野勉. 1993. 1992 nen kempo o kofu: 1992 nen no Betonamu 1992年憲法を公布―1992年のベトナム [Promulgating the 1992 constitution: Vietnam 1992]. Ajia doko nempo 1993 nemban アジア動向年報1993年版 [1993 yearbook of Asian affairs] edited by Ajia Keizai Kenkyujoアジア経済研究所 [Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO], pp. 191–222. Chiba: Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO.

Osada Noriyuki. 2011. An Embryonic Border: Racial Discourses and Compulsory Vaccination for Indian Immigrants at Ports in Colonial Burma, 1870–1937. Moussons: Recherche en sciences humaines sur l’Asie du Sud-Est [Monsoons: Social science research on Southeast Asia] 17: 145–164.

Schendel, Willem van. 2005. Spaces of Engagement: How Borderlands, Illegal Flows, and Territorial States Interlock. In Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: States, Borders, and the Other Side of Globalization, edited by Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham, pp. 38–68. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shimojo Hisashi 下條尚志. 2018. Betonamu-Kambojia kokkyo no ekkyo ido o meguru rokaru na seiji: Reisen shuketsu go Mekon Deruta no Kumeru jin ekkyosha to Betonamu kokka ベトナム―カンボジア国境の越境移動をめぐるローカルな政治―冷戦終結後メコンデルタのクメール人越境者とベトナム国家 [The local politics of transnational migration between Vietnam and Cambodia: Khmer border crossers and the Vietnamese state in the Mekong Delta after the end of Cold War]. Ajia Afurika gengo bunka kenkyu アジア・アフリカ言語文化研究 [Journal of Asian and African studies] 95: 152–179.

―. 2015. Datsu shokuminchi ka katei no Mekon Deruta ni okeru Kumeru jin no gengo, bukkyo, kizoku 脱植民地化過程のメコンデルタにおけるクメール人の言語・仏教・帰属 [Language, Buddhism, and belonging during decolonization: The Khmers of the Mekong Delta]. Ajia Afurika chiiki kenkyu アジア・アフリカ地域研究 [Asian and African area studies] 15(1): 20–48.

Tagliacozzo, Eric. 2005. Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865–1915. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Taylor, Philip. 2016. Searching for a Khmer Monastic Higher Education in Post-socialist Vietnam. In Connected and Disconnected in Viet Nam: Remaking Social Relations in a Post-socialist Nation, edited by Philip Taylor, pp. 273–310. Canberra: ANU Press.

―. 2014. The Khmer Lands of Vietnam: Environment, Cosmology and Sovereignty. Singapore: NUS Press; Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

―. 2004. Redressing Disadvantage or Re-arranging Inequality? Development Interventions and Local Responses in the Mekong Delta. In Social Inequality in Vietnam and the Challenges to Reform, edited by Philip Taylor, pp. 236–269. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Thongchai Winichakul. 1994. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Tomiyama Yasushi 冨山泰. 1993. Nanko suru wahei kyotei no jikko: 1992 nen no Kambojia 難航する和平協定の実行―1992年のカンボジア [Execution of the difficult peace agreement: Cambodia in 1992]. Ajia doko nempo 1993 nemban アジア動向年報1993年版 [1993 yearbook of Asian affairs] edited by Ajia Keizai Kenkyujo アジア経済研究所 [Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO], pp. 223–236. Chiba: Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO.

Việt Nam Cộng Hòa, Bộ Kế hoạch Phát triển Quốc gia (VNCHBKHPTQG) [The Republic of Vietnam, Ministry of State Planning and Development]. 1973. Niên giám Thống kê Việt Nam 1972 [Statistical yearbook of Vietnam, 1972]. Sài Gòn: Viện Quốc gia Thống kê [Institute of State Statistics].

Vo Tri Thanh; and Pham Hoang Ha. 2004. Vietnam’s Recent Economic Reforms and Developments: Achievements, Paradoxes, and Challenges. In Social Inequality in Vietnam and the Challenges to Reform, edited by Philip Taylor, pp. 63–89. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Vũ Đức Liêm. 2016. Vietnam at the Khmer Frontier: Boundary Politics, 1802–1847. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 20: 75–101.

Vũ Lân (Chủ Biên); Phương Hạnh; and Bạch Mai. 1988. Xã P, Đất nước Con người [P Village (or Commune), Country, and People]. Hậu Giang: Ban Chấp hành Đảng bộ và Ủy ban nhân dân Huyện Mỹ Tú – Hậu Giang [Committee of the communist party and people’s committee of My Tu district, Hau Giang].

Unpublished Sources
Công văn UBND Xã P [People’s committee of the P village (or commune)], Bảng Tổng hợp toàn số, khẩu [Table / Data for total population], 2011.

Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, Ban Chấp hành Trung ương [The central committee of the communist party of Vietnam], Số: 68CT/TW, Chỉ thị về Công tác ở Vùng Đồng bào Dân tộc Khơ-mer [No. 68 CT/TW, directive on mission in Ethnic Khmer Regions], April 18, 1991.

Thủ tướng Chính phủ [Prime Minister], Số: 74/2008/QĐ-TTg, Quyết định về Một số Chính sách Hỗ trợ giải quyết đất ở, đất sản xuất và Giải quyết việc làm cho Đồng bào dân Tộc thiếu số nghèo, đời sống khó khăn vùng Đồng bằng sống Cửu Long Giai đoạn 2008–2010 [No. 74/2008/QĐ-TTg, decision on compensation, support upon living land and manufacturing land, and employment solving for poor ethics groups in the Mekong Delta from 2008–2010], June 9, 2008.

Usuki Sayaka 薄さやか. 2013. Kambojia kingendaishi ni okeru ningen shudan bunrui gainen カンボジア近現代史における人間集団分類概念 [People-Grouping concepts in the modern history of Cambodia]. Master’s thesis, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.

DigitalGlobe, Earthstar Geographics | NOSTRA, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS., accessed June 8, 2020.

Esri, GEBCO, DeLorme, NaturalVue | Esri, GEBCO, IHO-IOC GEBCO, DeLorme, NGS., accessed June 8, 2020.

1) The naming of the era is based on local naming practices; those in my field site call the era thời tập đoàn (collectivization era), rarely using the term thời bao cấp (rationing era), which is generally much better known.

2) On the migration between French Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam today) and the Protectorate of Cambodia by Khmer monks, see my paper in Japanese (Shimojo 2015).

3) These were the South Vietnamese and Cambodian governments, the United States, the National Liberation Front, and the Khmer Rouge.

4) The official number of Vietnamese citizens in Cambodia decreased from 400,000 in 1969 to 210,000 in 1970 (VNCHBKHPTQG 1973, 387).

5) In Khanh Hau village, Long An Province in the Mekong Delta, where several Japanese scholars conducted intensive fieldwork in the late 1990s, the farmland shared by the agricultural collectivization was returned to the former owners by Đổi Mới reforms, resulting in large numbers of landless households. Among them, not only the original landless households but also some others became landless because the process of land inheritance between generations did not catch up with the rapid population growth over 40 years (Iwai 2001, 121).

6) When Buddhist and secular educational institutions were revived and restructured in the 1990s in Cambodia, many Khmer monks from Vietnam resumed undocumented travel to Cambodia for study, but the Vietnamese government attempted to restrict them from going (Taylor 2016).

7) Although is often translated as “commune,” this paper translates as village, because the people in P. village do not distinguish between the terms làng (natural village) and (the smallest administrative unit), treating both as the same.

8) The people in P. village use the term “Viet” rather than “Kinh.” Based on the local context, I use “Viet” in this paper.

9) Công văn UBND Xã P, Bảng Tổng hợp toàn số, khẩu, 2011.

10) Samrong ward, which is located in Q. hamlet (ấp) of P. village, is the focus of this study. Although it is not an official place name, in my fieldwork I used this name for convenience of explanation. Q. hamlet is officially separated into three wards. Samrong ward encompasses most of ward 2 and part of ward 3. At the time of my household survey (December 2011–January 2012), Samrong ward had 663 residents (713 including people traveling to work outside of the ward). I lived in an area known in the Khmer language as “Phno (dunes) located on the fringe of the Samrong trees.” Thus, I named the study area “Samrong ward.”

11) Interview with Com (born 1950), male, Chinese-métis Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, March 6, 2012.

12) Interview with Sang (born 1936), female, Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, January 12, 2012.

13) Interview with Rat (born 1948), male, Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, February 28, 2012.

14) Interview with Han (born 1951), male, Chinese-métis Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, February 22, 2012.

15) At that time, Hang had enlarged his farmland by claiming the land of another debtor who was unable to repay his debt. Interview with Than (born 1955), male, Khmer-métis Chinese, member of P. village people’s committee, living in P. village, February 22, 2012.

16) Interview with Than, February 22, 2012.

17) Interview with Than, March 1, 2012.

18) Interview with Don (born 1953), male, Khmer, carpenter, living in P. village, September 9, 2011.

19) Interview with Than, February 22, 2012.

20) The exchange rate at the end of December 1992 was USD1 = 2,310 riel (Tomiyama 1993).

21) The exchange rate at the end of December 1992 was USD1 = 10,505 đồng (Murano 1993).

22) Interview with Don’s wife (born 1954), female, Chinese-métis Khmer, homemaker, living in P. village, February 29, 2012.

23) Interview with Don’s wife, February 29, 2012.

24) Interview with Don, March 4, 2012.

25) Interview with Con (born 1973), male, Khmer, guard at a junior high school, living in P. village, March 4, 2012.

26) The people whom I have interviewed so far mentioned Tinh Bien (a vast floodplain, see Fig. 2), Ha Tien (a port city on the Gulf of Siam), and Long Binh (a city along the Bassac and Binh Di Rivers) as popular informal border crossing areas during the 1980s and 1990s. These areas today have official border gates through which almost all people can cross with a passport.

27) In 1970, when the Cambodian civil war broke out, the number of “Vietnamese citizens” in Cambodia decreased sharply from 400,000 to 210,000 (VNCHBKHPTQG 1973, 387). The number of “Vietnamese” was just 8,200 in 1981, when the Vietnamese military invaded, but had increased to 95,600 by 1995 (Usuki 2013, 26–28). It is unclear whether “Vietnamese” in some of the surveys conducted at that time referred to ethnic “Viets” or “Vietnamese citizens,” including ethnic Khmer born in Vietnam. Furthermore, it is unclear whether people who migrated from Vietnam without possessing passports were counted in these statistics. However, what is certain is that the number of people classified as “Vietnamese” was increasing.

28) Interview with Thu (born 1947), female, Chinese-métis Khmer, seller of cheap candy, living in P. village, February 24 and March 3, 2012. In 2010 Thu moved back to P. village, where she set up a small business selling candy.

29) Công is the local unit for measuring land; 1 công is about 0.13 ha.

30) Interview with Son (born 1952), male, Khmer (his father was born in Cambodia), wage laborer, living in P. village and Ratanakiri, August 11, 2011.

31) Thủ tướng Chính phủ, Số: 74/2008/QĐ-TTg, Quyết định về Một số Chính sách Hỗ trợ giải quyết đất ở, đất sản xuất và Giải quyết việc làm cho Đồng bào dân Tộc thiếu số nghèo, đời sống khó khăn vùng Đồng bằng sống Cửu Long Giai đoạn 2008–2010, June 9, 2008.

32) Interviews with Than, January 13, 2011 and 7 March 7, 2012; Son, August 11, 2011; Cang (born 1950), male, Khmer, traditional medical practitioner, living in P. village, August 18, 2011.

33) Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, Ban Chấp hành Trung ương, Số: 68CT/TW, Chỉ thị về Công tác ở Vùng Đồng bào Dân tộc Khơ-mer, April 18, 1991.

34) Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, Ban Chấp hành Trung ương, Số: 68CT/TW, Chỉ thị về Công tác ở Vùng Đồng bào Dân tộc Khơ-mer, April 18, 1991.

35) Interview conducted on September 7, 2011. I have anonymized the interviewee in order to protect the interviewee from political persecution.

36) Interview with Pho (born 1971), male, Chinese-métis Khmer, farmer, living in P. village, October 16, 2011.

37) Author’s field notes, September 26–27, 2011.

38) Interview with Ke (born 1940), male, Khmer, farmer, March 6, 2012. It can be assumed that Ke bought the Pali canon at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh.

39) Interview with Than, February 8, 2012.

40) In Samrong ward, P. village, of the 419 people over 20 years old, 89 had never studied at a public school, 172 had studied in a primary school, and 111 had studied in a secondary school. Thus, the majority had never studied in a public school or had studied only up to primary school level (based on the author’s survey conducted from November 2011 to January 2012).

41) Interview with Thu, March 3, 2012.


Vol. 10, No. 1, Vivek Neelakantan


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

“No Nation Can Go Forward When It Is Crippled by Disease”: Philippine Science and the Cold War, 1946–65

Vivek Neelakantan*

*Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, 431 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106-2426, United States
e-mail: vivekneelakantanster[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_53

This article outlines a notion of postcolonial Philippine science. First, it touches on the links between science, medicine, the Cold War, and nation building. Second, it examines the niche occupied by applied sciences, particularly nutrition, agriculture, and medicine, in nation building. Between 1946 and 1965, Philippine presidents understood science functionally, in terms of harnessing the country’s natural resources for economic development; and strategically, in terms of the Philippines being a regional leader of the free world in Southeast Asia. To realize the Philippines’ Cold War aspirations, they mobilized technical assistance from the US. The Bataan Rice Enrichment Project (1946–49) and the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute (1962) indicated a shift in the emphasis of US assistance from economic aid to technical cooperation in the field of nutrition and agriculture.

Through a close study of the Philippine Medical Association, this article examines inner tensions between physicians who advocated an individualized treatment of disease and those who advocated mass campaigns. Between 1946 and 1965, a mobilization mentality suffused the practice of science in the Philippines such that the pursuit of knowledge would lead to unanswered Cold War questions—particularly socialized medicine—expanding healthcare access to rural areas.

Keywords: Philippines, postcolonial science, Cold War, disease eradication, Bataan Rice Enrichment Project, International Rice Research Institute, Philippine Medical Association, socialized medicine

In his first State of the Nation Address, on January 25, 1954, President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines asserted, “We must have a healthy manpower as the most essential factor for economic advancement. No nation can go forward when it is crippled by disease” (Magsaysay 1954). The address attests to the centrality of public health in transcending the problem of underdevelopment of the postcolonial state.

The 1950s coincided with the emergence of the Cold War and decolonization in Southeast Asia. The US sought to subvert the spread of Communist ideology. To this effect, it secured the loyalty of leaders from Asia and Africa through a program of technical assistance, particularly in agriculture and health. By portraying poverty and disease as the breeding grounds of Communism, the US sought to assist with disease eradication, particularly the anti-malaria campaigns in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. The Filipino political leadership perceived public health as the means to usher in development of remote islands and was open to US developmental assistance (Neelakantan 2015a).

This study investigates the niche in nation building occupied by applied sciences, particularly nutrition, agriculture, and medicine. The argument has two strands. First, Philippine science was packaged as a program of delivery that was intended to address basic needs of the people, particularly self-sufficiency in food. Second, between 1946 and 1965 Philippine presidents understood science functionally, in terms of harnessing the country’s natural resources for economic development; and strategically, in terms of furthering the country’s aspirations as the leader of the free world in Southeast Asia. To realize the Philippines’ Cold War aspirations, the presidents mobilized US technical assistance. The Bataan Rice Enrichment Project (1946–49) and the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in 1962 indicated a shift in the emphasis of US assistance in the Philippines from economic aid to technical cooperation, particularly in the field of nutrition and agriculture.

Locating the “Postcolonial” in Philippine Science

This article seeks to outline a notion of postcolonial Philippine science. The notion of “postcolonial” has considerable conceptual ambiguity. It has been taken to signify a time period after colonialism; a critique of the legacy of colonialism; an ideological backing for newly created states; a complicity of Western knowledge with colonial projects; or an argument that colonial engagements can reveal the ambivalence, anxiety, and instability deep within Western thought and practice (Anderson 2002, 645). Postcolonial theory seeks to contest the assumption that Western knowledge is objective, authoritative, and universally applicable.

In 1959, W. W. Rostow described the stages of “economic growth” in his non-Communist manifesto. Rostow emphasized the role of science and technology in achieving takeoff from a traditional society (Rostow 1959). Science, according to Rostow’s narrative, was diffused from Europe. George Basalla amplified this diffusionist perspective by giving details of the spread of Western science from its European center to the periphery or the colonies (Basalla 1967, 612–622). According to Basalla’s simple evolutionary model accounting for the diffusion of science, in phase one the periphery provided raw materials for European science. In phase two, the derivative and dependent institutions of colonial science emerged; and sometimes an independent national science, called phase three, would later develop. By the early 1990s, Basalla’s simple evolutionary model of scientific development provoked extensive criticism. In the early 1990s, Paolo Palladino and Michael Worboys—taking Lewis Pyenson’s work on the Dutch East Indies as a proxy for diffusionism in science—suggested that Western methods of knowledge had not been accepted passively but were selectively absorbed in relation to existing traditions of knowledge and religion (Pyenson 1989; Palladino and Worboys 1993, 102). Imperialism also shaped the development of metropolitan institutions and knowledge. Discussions of diffusion and nation building have gradually given way to talk of contact zones and network construction.

Postcolonial science as a field of enquiry crosses geopolitical boundaries as it tracks flows, circuits of scientists, knowledges, machines, and techniques (Anderson 2002). Postcolonial science—which focuses on contact zones of clashing knowledges—is incomplete unless it is firmly situated in a political and institutional context (Abraham 2006, 213). Science is central to forging the identity of the postcolonial state. It exists simultaneously as history, as myth, as political slogan, as social category, as technology, as modern Western knowledge, and as an instrument of change (Abraham 2006, 213). Postcolonial science in the Philippine context was a state-building project—as reflected in the establishment of the Philippine Research Reactor (PRR-1) atomic reactor and IRRI.

Given the paucity of historiography on postcolonial Philippine science, one might justify this study on the basis of a lack. But the story of Philippine science during the Cold War is rather eclectic in terms of archival sources. Therefore, a paucity of secondary literature does not provide justification for this article. Rather, this study closely examines the underlying concerns of Philippine presidents (1946–65) and scientists in addressing the dilemma of how to refashion science that was at once relevant to the Philippines’ national needs and increased the country’s visibility on the international stage. For example, Kathleen Gutierrez investigates the ways in which medical botany writing furthered the symbolic and commercial promise of plants in the context of postcolonial nationalism and international science. Based on a close reading of the Filipino botanist Eduardo Quisumbing’s Medicinal Plants of the Philippines, Gutierrez highlights the features of medical botany writing that produced articulations of nationalism in the Philippines in the aftermath of World War II (Gutierrez 2018, 36). Through his writing and encyclopedism (genre-bending deluge of information, colonial science, and use of scientific terminology), Quisumbing established a fresh narrative for Philippine science that had emerged from the ravages of wars and colonial influence. Medicinal Plants, according to Gutierrez, is an expression of scientific achievement through encyclopedic gesturing to effect science-minded aims and create a certain kind of nationalism through flora (Gutierrez 2018, 62). As the scope of Gutierrez’s article is restricted to botany, the role of applied sciences, particularly medicine, in nation building remains marginal in the narrative.

Physicians dominated the first generation of nationalist leaders in the Philippines under American colonialism (1898–1946). For the nationalist physicians, decolonization was linked to the tropes of scientific progress (Ileto 1988, 105; Anderson and Pols 2012, 93).

Warwick Anderson (2007) contends that the production of scientific knowledge was treated as an index of modernity and national development in the Philippines. But Anderson’s article does not elaborate on the circumstances under which science became an instrument of postcolonial nation building.

Sunil Amrith’s influential monograph (2006) argues that India played a more influential role in shaping post-World War II Asia’s health paradigms than did the Indonesians or the Burmese, who were preoccupied with establishing the legitimacy of the postcolonial state amidst much ethnic strife. However, this line of argument does not hold true with respect to transnational Philippine initiatives in agriculture, for example, the training of Indonesian students from the Faculty of Agriculture (Bogor) at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Agriculture at Los Baños in the 1950s. Nonetheless, Amrith’s monograph has opened new possibilities for historians to examine the transnational circulation of technical expertise across Asia.

During the 1950s, a concern with nation building in newly independent states of Asia and Africa was central to modernization theory. The dominant narrative at the time was how to develop Asian and African states toward a new form of modernity along Western, if not necessarily capitalist, lines (Berger 2003). A conspicuous feature of the political landscape across Asia during the 1950s was an increased emphasis on the role of the state in mediating national development. Gabrielle Hecht observes that at the heart of the modernization theory were disagreements between the USSR and the US regarding industrialization of newly independent countries. Whereas the USSR offered a development path that would lead Asian countries to socialism through large-scale industrialization, the US envisaged that with the right sort of technical assistance, any human society could climb the ladder of progress and that industrialization and democratization would proceed hand in hand (Hecht 2011, 1–12). A common denominator underlying competing US and USSR visions of modernization for newly decolonized nations was the ability of science to provide a panacea for the problem of underdevelopment. But the reception of international technical assistance was uneven across countries (Immerwahr 2015, 11).1)

Anderson (2012) notes that since the 1970s there has been active debate about the meaning of science, technology, and medicine within the Indian context, much of it occurring within the Gandhian, Marxist, subaltern, and postcolonial frameworks. However, the relationships among Indian, Southeast Asian, and global science and technology studies scholarship remain fragmentary. A major research question raised by this article is whether Philippine science was a variant of postcolonial science more generally, or whether it embodied a distinctive national flavor.

“Scientific Research, in the Long Run, Does Pay Off in Terms of Pesos and Centavos”

The challenges of post-World War II national reconstruction necessitated quick changes in the Philippine economy that included producing cash crops for export, increasing food production, and improving people’s living standards. To this end, Presidents Manuel Roxas and Elpidio Quirino (between 1946 and 1953) mobilized applied sciences—particularly nutrition, agriculture, and medicine—that would enable the nation to attain self-sufficiency in economic affairs. At the time, within Philippine policy circles it was noted, “Scientific research, in the long run, does pay off in terms of pesos and centavos, in terms of higher efficiency and reduced man-hours of work, in terms of richer harvests and healthier citizens” (Varela 1954). Financial limitations of the state implied that scientific investigations were tied to practical concerns. In general, research in the Philippines lacked funding and the state struggled to attract the best minds to research.

On June 3, 1946—a month before US colonialism finally ended in the Philippines—Roxas, in his first State of the Nation Address, outlined the challenges facing the nascent nation. The Philippines was born amidst much political turmoil.2) Roxas expressed disappointment that the government did not have the financial means to support postwar economic rehabilitation:

Public health and sanitation have retreated far from the level which existed before the war. Epidemic is a constant threat. The three great pests of our land—the rat, the mosquito, and the locust—have thrived on our misfortune and threaten us with both disease and hunger. Control measures against all of them must be taken.

Famine is a strong possibility; shortages of food are even now critical. We are immediately faced by a shortage, which will grow more critical within the next few months, in our staple food product—rice. In some sections of the country rice is not being planted because of the lack of carabaos and the threat of rats and locusts. In others, planting is diminished because of the absence of law and order and the fear that the harvest may be stolen. There is a world shortage of rice. Many nations of the earth are as unfortunate as we; in the case of our own shortage we can expect very little assistance from abroad. We are doing everything in our power to get as much assistance as we can. (Roxas 1946)

Given the scarcity of rice, Roxas mobilized the population to grow corn, root crops, and vegetables. He emphasized an all-out food campaign that encouraged the substitution of rice with corn. His administration also introduced the idea of anti-famine gardens.3) In addition to increasing the production of rice, Roxas identified symbolic capital in disease eradication (particularly malaria) as the means to resuscitate a strong and healthy population.

In January 1946, five months after the end of the Pacific War, the US—in mutual agreement with the Philippine Bureau of Health—developed a road map for preventing disease that had a negative bearing on economic recovery. The US Public Health Services (USPHS) appropriated a sum of US$1 billion to assist the Philippine Bureau of Health to rehabilitate the devastated Philippine quarantine service, the School of Hygiene at Alabang, and the Bacteriological Laboratory of the UP.4) The USPHS identified malaria as a rural disease that vitiated agricultural productivity and estimated that up to half the working population was afflicted with the disease.5) The Bureau of Health, with restricted allocation of funds, was unable to cope with malaria and its associated socioeconomic effects (see Fig. 1).



Fig. 1 The Malaria Control Unit of the Philippines Public Health Rehabilitation Program (1946)

Source: National Library of Medicine, NLM Image ID 10395113.


After Philippine independence in July 1946, the USPHS was unable to cement cooperation with the Malaria Control Organization of the Philippine Department of Health as the latter suffered from a shortage of trained medical personnel. As a result, the USPHS implemented malaria control as a public health rehabilitation project. Its methods included house-to-house surveys of the disease among inhabitants of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental Provinces, entomological surveys, public health propaganda through lectures illustrating the importance of the disease, and control of the vector through insecticidal spraying. Malaria control was incorporated into the curricula of elementary and high schools, particularly in these two provinces. Not surprisingly, the Negros Islands recorded an 85 percent decrease in the incidence of malaria between 1946 and 1950 and a 65 percent decline in death rates attributed to the disease.6)

Despite successes in specific areas, the malaria control program in the Philippines prior to 1950 was beset with organizational bottlenecks. The national government had granted the measly sum of 180,000 pesos for malaria control work (Francisco 1950, 347). Insecticidal spraying was the weakest arm of the program. Most of the plantation owners had not taken malaria seriously, and there was a pervasive absence of preventive measures.

Until 1950 the Philippines suffered from economic instability primarily due to a budgetary deficit and an insufficient increase in the production of cash crops (particularly sugarcane and abaca); the latter could be partly attributed to malaria and schistosomiasis, which impeded the efficiency of the workforce. To compound the problem, the Huk rebellion gained momentum in March 1950.7) The US was determined to retain the Philippines within the orbit of democratic powers but was concerned that the latter’s inability to release peso savings for capital investment, stimulate industrialization, and raise people’s living standards would lead to internal unrest.8) The Bell Mission recommended that the US government provide financial assistance amounting to US$250 million to the Philippines so that the latter could carry out a five-year plan of economic development (Ravenholt 1951, 414).

After the sudden death of Roxas in 1948, Quirino, a political conservative and pro-American, drew support from the sugar barons for presidency. During his presidency, large-scale inequalities in the distribution of agricultural holdings provided a fertile breeding ground for the Huk rebellion (Merrill 1993, 137–159).

Quirino’s first State of the Nation Address exhorted Filipino citizens to work toward total economic mobilization and attacking poverty (Quirino 1949). In his quest for the nation’s economic self-sufficiency, the president devised measures to increase the acreage under rice, particularly in Mindanao:

We must turn our concentrated attention to the development of Mindanao. Something must be done without loss of time to convert that vast region into a real empire of wealth. I recommend a general program of road construction to encourage production and communication. The establishment of the planned hydro-electric and fertilizer plant in Maria Cristina Falls will give the proper agricultural and industrial incentives. Locust pest is hampering the agricultural development of Northern Mindanao and even as far as Bohol and Cebu. I also recommend that sufficient appropriation be set aside to eradicate this winged enemy to our increased production. (Quirino 1949)

The Philippine government’s proposal of opening Mindanao for economic development converged with the Economic Cooperation Administration’s (ECA) plan of containing the spread of the Huk rebellion to the island (Fifield 1951, 16).

Magsaysay—secretary of defense (1950–53) during Quirino’s presidency—had won military victories against the Huks. He contested the 1953 presidential election on a Nacionalista Party ticket against the Liberal candidate Carlos Romulo. After assuming office in 1953, Magsaysay promised to ameliorate people’s living conditions.

In his second State of the Nation Address, Magsaysay asserted that there was more to national security than simply maintaining territorial integrity and public order. As an independent nation, the Philippines had to assure its citizens freedom from disease, ignorance, and want (Magsaysay 1955). Magsaysay emphasized that the government could not do everything for the Filipinos and that people had to help themselves (Magsaysay 1956). To this effect, the Magsaysay administration reoriented health, education, and welfare programs with an emphasis on self-help.9) Magsaysay’s concern with the “common man” was the logical first step in imbuing the Filipino way of life with the substance of democracy. In the pursuit of democratic ideals, he urged Filipinos to work ground-up—from factories, barrios (rural areas), and towns (Magsaysay 1956). For the fulfillment of Filipinos’ basic needs, he identified the following requirements: (a) self-sufficiency in food (rice); (b) a strong administrative apparatus for the implementation of community development; (c) industrialization based on the utilization of locally available resources; (d) reorientation of the education system with an emphasis on science; and (e) scientific research (see Fig. 2).



Fig. 2 Community Development through Self-Help (c. 1957)

Source: Series: Propaganda Posters Distributed in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, 1900–2003, Record Group 306: Records of the US Information Agency (1900–2003); US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Identifier 6949000.


Magsaysay exhorted that education reforms in the Philippines be oriented toward general, scientific, and vocational education. He expressed concern that diminishing interest in natural and physical sciences ran contrary to the rapidly developing requirements of the atomic age (Magsaysay 1955). At the heart of Magsaysay’s concern was how to refashion science such that it was at once open to international collaboration and relevant to national priorities. To this end, he created a Science Advisory Committee in 1955 composed of representatives from universities and research organizations. The committee did not explicitly mention medicine in its agenda.

Magsaysay’s vision of using public health as a pathway for economic development was congruent with the US objective of subverting Communism in newly independent countries. In 1955 US President Dwight Eisenhower pointed out that a strong program of international aid was urgent in order to prevent newly independent countries of Asia and Africa from deflecting to the Communist camp.10) To this end, the Eisenhower administration appropriated US$700 million to target toward technical and economic assistance to underdeveloped nations, particularly in the form of malaria eradication.11) Eisenhower observed that by 1954, malaria had attacked 200 million people and killed over two million and that the US had formulated a blueprint in cooperation with the World Health Organization to wipe out malaria globally. Eisenhower contended that malaria eradication was congruent with the American national interest of opening up new markets in underdeveloped countries. In the fiscal year 1954, the ECA loaned US$22 million to the Philippines to augment food production and ameliorate public health conditions in rural areas, especially to eradicate malaria.12) The apparent speed with which malaria could be brought under control using DDT made malaria control attractive for US planners, who saw the elimination of the disease as an instrument for winning “hearts and minds” in the war against Communist expansion (Packard 1997, 283).

By 1954 the Magsaysay administration had enacted the Rural Health Act, which provided for the establishment of rural health units for every municipal district. The Act instituted health officers for municipalities. The power of municipal health officers was centralized with the provincial health officers (Ford and Cruz 1957, 687–696). At the time, isolated disease eradication programs related to malaria, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases were implemented on a piecemeal basis. The district health officers had limited authority to implement health programs within their jurisdiction. Most activities of the rural health units were concentrated at the level of the poblacion (district headquarters), leaving outlying barrios underserved (Neelakantan 2015a). At the time, the major stumbling blocks to Philippine development were administrative and political.13) Governmental functions were dispersed among an excessive number of departments, which resulted in diffusion of responsibility and led to procedural delays in the implementation of public health programs.

Despite the administration’s legislative measures—such as the enactment of the Rural Health Act—that reaffirmed Magsaysay’s commitment to ensuring freedom from disease, the implementation of public health measures was contingent on the availability of American aid. The Eisenhower administration wanted Magsaysay to mount vigorous attacks on the Philippines’ socioeconomic problems and to become a symbol in the war against Communism (Cullather 1993, 332). But these hopes were not fulfilled. Within months of Magsaysay’s inauguration, the ruling Nacionalista Party coalition fragmented. Growing Filipino resentment against the US military bases in the Philippines threatened bilateral relations.

In a confidential letter to then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Magsaysay expressed concern that the Philippines did not have the means to fully implement the rural development program.14) He requested US$10 million from the Eisenhower administration to implement the program and prevent disillusionment among the masses.15) In requesting increased funding for the rural development program, Magsaysay emphasized the centrality of the Philippines to the success of the US anti-Communist propaganda in Asia.

The Philippines’ strong cultural ties with the US placed the former’s scientific research on a strong footing vis-à-vis other ex-colonial nations in a similar economic position (Varela 1954, 363). At the time, it was widely held within scientific circles that pure research undertaken in US laboratories could serve as a stepping-stone for applied research undertaken by Filipino scientists. The institutional foundations of Philippine science in the postwar period appeared to be jeopardized by the bureaucracy. The governments under Roxas and Quirino were disappointing in their budgetary allocation to research (Gutierrez 2018, 44–45).

The Philippine Bureau of Science, established in 1905, undertook research in tropical medicine, botany, zoology, entomology, and geology. The research activities of the bureau were disrupted due to the Pacific War (1942–45). In 1947, after Philippine independence, the Bureau of Science was renamed the Institute of Science. The institute carried out research in various branches of science and drew personnel from state universities.16) It undertook quality control of vaccines produced locally at Alabang and established minimum standards for agricultural products. But research coordination was carried out by the National Research Council of the Philippines (Neelakantan 2019). The combined efforts of the National Research Council of the Philippines and the University of the Philippines resulted in the passage of Republic Act 1606 in August 1956, “An Act to Promote Scientific, Engineering and Technological Research, Invention and Development” (Valenzuela 1960, 515). This Act created the National Science Board, which provided financial incentives for a number of research projects, particularly pharmaceutical and pharmacological research on Philippine medicinal plants; nutrition surveys that assessed the nutritive value of Filipino foods; and biological research on antibiotics, tetanus toxoids, and human rabies (Valenzuela 1960, 515). Increased congressional interest in science during Carlos Garcia’s presidency (1957–61) resulted in the creation of a committee to revise Republic Act 1606 in order to mobilize private participation in research funding. The results of the congressional committee were spelled out in Republic Act 2067, a measure that was intended to integrate, coordinate, and intensify science and technology and foster innovation.

Republic Act 2067 paved the way for the Science Act of 1958. The Science Act established the National Science Development Board (NSDB) in place of the former National Science Board, although the changes were cosmetic. The NSDB supervised and partially funded the following projects: (1) the establishment of the Institute of Applied Research and Graduate Studies in Engineering in the UP; (2) scientific and industrial research under the jurisdiction of the National Institute of Science and Technology; (3) pharmaceutical and pharmacological research in the College of Pharmacy, UP; (4) the promotion of science consciousness under the leadership of the National Science Foundation of the Philippines; (5) agricultural research in the College of Agriculture, UP; and (6) nutrition research, undertaken by the Food and Nutrition Center, UP College of Medicine (Valenzuela 1960, 516–517). The Philippine Atomic Energy Commission’s radioactive iodine studies on treating various thyroid disorders attracted the attention of the International Atomic Energy Commission (Valenzuela 1960, 520).

The scientific landscape of the Philippines during the 1950s and 1960s could be characterized in terms of symbolic projects that signified the nation was increasing its visibility and respectability within the international community. An editorial in the Manila Times on November 4, 1963 proclaimed that the egg-shaped dome of the new atomic reactor, the PRR-1—built with US assistance under the Atoms for Peace program—symbolized the Philippines’ desire to keep pace with development along Western lines.17) The public hoped that the atomic reactor would serve as a training ground for local scientists, inspire a new generation to take up science, and halt the emigration of scientists overseas. During the 1960s and 1970s, the PRR-1 became the nucleus for research in the Philippines on radioisotope production, neutron spectrometry, and reactor physics before it was mothballed in 1988 due to technical reasons (Guillermo 2012).

Postcolonial science in the Philippines was largely statist in its orientation. The Philippine private sector’s need for research was less urgent than the adaptation of already available technology from abroad, especially in the textile, flour milling, steel, and pharmaceutical sectors. Philippine private industries’ gross expenditure on research and development accounted for a mere 0.04 percent of the gross national income (Ramirez 1962, 465). At the time, research was influenced by government priorities in national development such that when an area of science happened to be defined as relevant to national priorities, funding from the NSDB would be assured. Between 1958 and 1966, applied research attracted almost 90 percent of all research funding, whereas basic research did not receive more than 10 percent of available resources (Ramirez 1962, 465). Consequently, Philippine scientists had to work independently to obtain grants from the US.

Low salaries and lack of prestige accorded to scientists dissuaded Filipino students from pursuing a research career. For instance, Ralph Blanco, a former instructor of mathematics at De La Salle University, worked out a hypothesis on the symmetry of energy and matter (Marasigan 1955, 85). His hypothesis could be verified by bringing together electrons and positrons and producing gamma rays. But to verify the hypothesis, Blanco needed a Bevatron (particle accelerator). As Bevatrons were expensive, Blanco abandoned his field of research and instead joined the civilian defense forces. Blanco’s inability to continue his research is illustrative of the neglect of mathematics and physics in Philippine science, given their perceived inability to address the country’s developmental needs in contrast to agricultural or medical sciences. The underlining features of the Philippine research landscape of the 1950s included an excessive emphasis on teaching rather than research and the absorption of most productive scientists into administrative positions.

Amador Muriel, a former physics instructor from the UP, recounted that until 1956 the university did not have a single doctoral physicist. Between 1959 and 1967, of the 12 Filipino students who had left for the US to earn a doctoral degree in physics, only one returned home (Muriel 1970, 38–39). Similarly, of the 13,829 foreign-born physicians in the US in 1966, 25 percent were Filipinos (Van der Kroef 1968, 243). The lack of local facilities for proper training of professionals and the lack of incentives to stay in the Philippines were two factors responsible for the brain drain of Filipino professionals overseas.

Euro-American Empire, Scientific Nationalism, and the Cold War: The Bataan Rice Enrichment Project, 1946–49

In 1946 beriberi was the second leading cause of death in the Philippines, after tuberculosis. Between 1947 and 1949, a province-wide feeding experiment was undertaken in Bataan, as a collaborative venture between the American chemist Robert R. Williams, who synthesized thiamine, and Juan Salcedo, the Philippine secretary of health between 1950 and 1953. The experiment revealed that polished white rice enriched with thiamine reduced the incidence of beriberi in vulnerable populations. Yet, by willfully exposing 50 percent of Bataan’s population to polished rice—and, consequently, beriberi—Williams recreated the prisons and asylums that European and American researchers had used to induce beriberi in unwilling research subjects in colonial Philippines prior to World War II (Ventura 2020). The attainment of Philippine political independence in 1946 was concomitant with the onset of the Cold War, marked by political, ideological, and military rivalry between the US and the USSR. The US—in its attempts to stem the appeal of the Soviet planned economy and land reforms—designed technical solutions to hunger such as rice enrichment. Such technical fixes medicalized food scarcity.

A deep historical contextualization of the Bataan Rice Enrichment Project reveals that Euro-American biomedical practitioners discovered beriberi in carceral laboratories in colonial Philippines that included prisons, plantations, barracks, and leprosy colonies (Ventura 2020, 294). Unlike Williams, who narrowly associated beriberi with thiamine deficiency, Filipino physicians prior to World War II, particularly Manuel Zamora and Primo Arambulo, encountered beriberi as a problem of infant mortality and maternal health. These physicians introduced tiki-tiki (a thiamine-rich rice bran supplement) that could be produced at low cost (McElhinny 2009; Ventura 2020). Arambulo equated tiki-tiki with national self-sufficiency. Salcedo did not reject rice enrichment in favor of tiki-tiki, as the latter was associated with a children’s supplement during the late colonial period (Ventura 2020, 305). Post-World War II nutritional enrichment programs were meant to supplement adult diets.

The nutrition policy in postcolonial Philippines bore the imprint of Salcedo. He began his career between 1929 and 1936 at the UP as an instructor of physiology. In 1943, during the Pacific War, he took graduate courses at Columbia University. There he met Williams, who had synthesized vitamin B1 in 1935. Together, Salcedo and Williams worked out a plan to attack beriberi in the Philippines in 1943 (Baldwin 1975, 11). The plan became feasible after the defeat of Japan in 1945. In 1946 Hoffman-La Roche pioneered the rice enrichment premix consisting of thiamine, niacin, and iron that was subsequently used in the Bataan rice enrichment experiment, beginning in 1947. At the time, Salcedo was director of field operations of USPHS and was the founding father of the Philippine Association of Nutrition, a nongovernmental institution that agitated for the creation of a state entity dedicated solely to the problem of nutrition. In 1948 the Roxas administration appointed Salcedo as the chairperson of the state-created Institute of Nutrition (see Fig. 3).



Fig. 3 Juan Salcedo, Health Secretary of the Philippines (1950–53) and Chairperson of the NSDB (1962–65, 1966–70)

Source: With permission from the Nutrition Foundation of the Philippines.


The Bataan experiment was made possible due to a grant from the Williams-Waterman Fund for the Combat of Dietary Diseases to the Philippine Department of Health. Seven municipalities on the east coast of the province with a population of 63,508 constituted the experimental area, whereas the remainder of the province—which included five municipalities with a population of 29,393—constituted the control area (Salcedo et al. 1950, 503). People from the experimental area consumed artificially enriched polished rice over the two-year period of the study, leading to a cataclysmic fall in mortality to near zero levels by 1949. The ratio of persons who displayed symptoms of beriberi dropped from 12.76 percent in 1947 to 1.55 percent in 1949 (Salcedo 1962, 573). In contrast, the death rate due to beriberi remained unchanged in the control area. By denying enriched rice to the control area, the Bataan experiment unknowingly exposed research participants to the risk of beriberi (Ventura 2020, 294).

In 1951 Salcedo extended the practice of rice enrichment to the provinces of North Luzon, particularly Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, and Pangasinan, the rice bowl of the Philippines. Retail prices of rice increased by 1 percent as a consequence of rice enrichment costs borne by millers (National Research Council 1958, 9). Local ordinances were enacted that forbade the sale of unenriched rice, but these were poorly enforced. In August 1952, as health secretary (1950–53) under the Quirino administration, Salcedo spearheaded the enactment of National Rice Enrichment Act 832, which made rice enrichment mandatory.

First, rice millers protested against the legislation as millers who did not comply with the national law had a 1 percent cost advantage over the complying ones (National Research Council 1958, 9). Second, due to an extant legislation in the Philippines, rice millers and other producers were obligated to pay a 2 percent tax on the value of their output. Of the 8,000 rice millers in the Philippines during the early 1950s, 7,000 were very small millers who did not maintain account books. As a result, nearly 90 percent of rice millers did not pay tax. But with the introduction of the Act, traders were apprehensive that with the Department of Health’s supervision of the distribution of premix—which included thiamine used in rice enrichment—the government could readily calculate the tax evaded by the millers (National Research Council 1958, 9). Provincial millers formed a union to resist the Enrichment Act.

The chief factor slowing the expansion of rice enrichment in the Philippines was the underlying concern among Filipino state officials outside the Department of Health that the thiamine premix was possibly monopolized by Hoffman-La Roche. Williams’s role as patent holder for synthetic thiamine raised considerable suspicion in the Philippines that he was motivated by profit (Williams 1961, 171; Ventura 2020, 306).

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) critiqued the findings of the Bataan study and the National Rice Enrichment Act in 1956. In its critique, the FAO noted that rice enrichment was introduced to Japan in 1950 (Mercado 1956, 1–10). The Japanese method of rice enrichment consisted of enlisting the support of housewives, who would voluntarily add thiamine to rice; this was in contrast to the Philippines, which mandated rice enrichment by the mills through state legislation. The FAO findings revealed that in contrast to Japan, the Philippines did not emphasize nutrition education, a critical pillar in ensuring the successful implementation of the National Rice Enrichment Act.

In his biography, Salcedo reminisces that Magsaysay assured him of presidential support for rice enrichment (Williams 1985, 52). But in reality, Magsaysay did not do so. In his address to millers in 1955, Magsaysay promised to seek the repeal of the Rice Enrichment Act (Williams 1985, 52). Salcedo was disappointed, as the law had not been implemented on a significant scale. A few days before his death on March 15, 1957, Magsaysay had planned to organize a national conference to identify organizational bottlenecks that impeded the implementation of the rice enrichment program (Editorial 1958). His successor, Garcia, created a committee to study the means to implement the Rice Enrichment Act. But the committee was unable to complete its task, and its activities were postponed due to the influential rice millers’ lobby.

The Garcia administration attempted to implement the Rice Enrichment Act through the Office of Nutrition in order to coordinate those working on nutrition-related issues at the regional or provincial level (Valencia 1960, 46–49). The Institute of Nutrition—which had been under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health during the Roxas and Quirino presidencies—used to provide consultation to the government on nutrition-related matters. A rider in the budget prevented the Institute of Nutrition from releasing any of its funds for activities related to implementation of the National Rice Enrichment Act (Mercado 1956, 1–10). The implementation of the Act faltered due to organizational bottlenecks.

Instead of investigating the cause of beriberi, the Bataan Rice Enrichment Project sought to demonstrate to the Filipino government and citizens the benefits of fortifying polished rice with thiamine. Although rice enrichment raised post-World War II hopes of worldwide eradication of nutritional diseases through UN agencies such as the FAO, enrichment also medicalized food scarcities attributed to socioeconomic inequalities. Williams was deeply embittered by his inability to turn the Bataan project into an international model for rice enrichment. He attributed the FAO’s rejection of the results of the Bataan project to “hostility to Americans on the part of Europeans or hostility to Filipinos on the part of other Asians” (Williams 1961, 202). As US technical assistance became tethered to Cold War objectives, the Philippines became less free to reject US aid agreements which mandated that US companies supply commodities necessary for technocratic projects (Ventura 2020, 309). While beriberi’s decline in Manila might have apparently contributed to declining interest in rice enrichment, endemic hunger in rural areas of the Philippines—particularly in Mindanao in 1960—might have provided an impetus to the discovery of miracle rice at the IRRI in 1966.

All in a Grain of Rice: The Cold War Origins of the International Rice Research Institute

The prevailing political and intellectual climate in the US between 1945 and 1955 was shaped by the Cold War, a part of which included the Population-National Security Theory. This theory purported to causally link overpopulation, resource exhaustion, hunger, political instability, appeal to Communism, and danger to US national interests (Perkins 1998, 119–121). According to this theory, world hunger was a cause of resource extraction and further political instability. Plant breeding could be seen as a panacea for hunger because science could increase and stabilize yields. The apolitical nature of science in solving tractable problems related to food and population growth was instrumental in bringing together the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in the establishment of the IRRI.

In 1950 US President Harry Truman appointed Nelson Rockefeller as the chairperson of the International Development Advisory Board to expand the Point Four Program, intended to assist people of underdeveloped nations to increase their living standards. In 1951 Rockefeller published his report in Foreign Affairs. The report indicated that the security and prosperity of the US and industrialized nations could be maintained only if there was complementary progress of economically backward regions (Rockefeller 1951, 530). Rockefeller noted that the first priority of US foreign policy was to raise food production in underdeveloped nations by 25 percent, followed by the development and export of raw materials from those countries to the US and Europe, and to render technical assistance. He warned that any reckless handling of US technical assistance to underdeveloped countries would disrupt supplies of raw materials to the US as a result of the former countries being thrown into the close economic orbit of the USSR (Rockefeller 1951, 528). The report was illustrative of a dominant view in US political circles that saw the food problem in newly independent nations in relation to political and economic problems. In 1951—as Rockefeller was advising Truman on the implementation of the Point Four Program—his foundation was creating a new research and funding division to define the world food problem and its solutions (Anderson 1991, 62).

In 1950–51 the Rockefeller Foundation contemplated establishing a major agricultural science division which could draw on the foundation’s experiences in the Southern US, China, and Mexico. At the time, P. L. Mapa, secretary of agricultural and natural resources of the Philippines, in an informal correspondence with John D. Rockefeller III cited the achievements of the Mexican program of the foundation, which had raised people’s living standards (Anderson 1991, 67). In the view of Philippine agricultural scientists, increased production of rice and corn would contribute to the creation of economic stability—but the varieties of seeds available at the time did not yield as much as those planted in other countries. Mapa advocated raising people’s living standards in the Philippines, as the country was a good example of democracy in Asia and it was crucial for democracies to achieve economic stability (Anderson 1991, 71). The Rockefeller Foundation conceded that there was a special problem in the Philippines with respect to the correlation between the prevalence of hunger and the appeal of Communist ideology. The identification of health and agriculture as objects of attention of the Rockefeller Foundation occurred in conjunction with a belief in the universal application of science and technology (Anderson 1991, 63). Foundation officials referred to “tractable” problems, meaning those that would yield to the application of science and technology. Work on tractable problems helped the foundation in dealing with governments as these problems seemed free of political entanglements during the Cold War.

Ex-CIA official John Kerry King, in his 1953 article in Foreign Affairs, noted that in Cold War Asia—caught between two opposing ideological blocs—the supply of rice had major political implications. The major challenge in the struggle to keep South and Southeast Asia free of Communist domination was raising people’s living standards. In 1952, Communist China emerged as a net exporter of rice after several years of scarcity. China used rice in its propaganda to reinforce the productive superiority of the Communist system. At the time, a need was felt within US foreign policy circles to convince South and Southeast Asian nations that increased production and a higher standard of living were possible in their own countries without resort to totalitarian methods. King asserted that “the struggle of the East versus the West in Asia is, in part, a race for production and rice is the symbol and substance of it” (King 1953, 453–460). King’s statement was significant as it placed rice in the context of regional security and US relations with non-Communist Asia.

The establishment of the IRRI was the result of a joint venture between the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, UP College of Agriculture at Los Baños, and Cornell University. The Ford Foundation funded the IRRI after its earlier investment in community development programs in India amounting to US$100 million (1951–53) failed to generate dramatic results (Anderson 1991, 81). The community development program was undertaken for geopolitical reasons. The foundation feared that a rapidly expanding population relative to food supplies in Southeast Asia would result in newly independent countries of the region falling into the Communist camp (Chandler 1992, 6). Disruptions in India’s Second Five-Year Plan around 1960–61, caused by declining agricultural yields, shifted the focus of American aid programs in the country from containing peasant unrest to increasing agricultural yields. The Central Intelligence Agency urged the Ford Foundation to take immediate action to avert a food crisis in Asia (Cullather 2010, 162). The new director of the Ford Foundation, Henry Heald, hired the Cornell agronomist Forrest Hill to reorganize the foundation’s international development program. Hill had visited the corn and wheat research stations of the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico and pushed to bring the Mexican model to the rice fields of Asia. In 1955, the Rockefeller Foundation enlisted the services of the Cornell agronomist Richard Bradfield. As the newly appointed assistant director of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1955, Robert Chandler accompanied Bradfield to identify requirements of agricultural colleges in the Philippines, Japan, Burma, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan and awarded grants for fellowships and specific research projects (Chandler 1992, 4). This was the beginning of the Rockefeller Foundation’s action program for agriculture in Asia.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations promoted project-oriented research—a US answer to totalitarian Soviet science—in the shadow of the Sputnik (Cullather 2010, 162). Given the Ford Foundation had an endowment four times larger than the Rockefeller Foundation and the latter’s experience in staffing international programs since 1913, the two foundations cemented collaboration by 1958. In January 1959, Bradfield—while in Asia for the Rockefeller Foundation—stopped in the Philippines to explore the proposal of setting up a rice institute. He noted that L. B. Uichano, then dean of the UP College of Agriculture at Los Baños, expressed enthusiasm for the establishment of such an institute (Chandler 1992, 8). Between June and September 1959, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations reached an agreement for the establishment of the IRRI.18)

Three factors influenced the collaboration between Cornell and the UP College of Agriculture at Los Baños. First, Cornell had some involvement with the Philippines dating back to the colonial period. Several students from the College of Agriculture had been trained in Cornell. Second, the College of Agriculture was devastated during World War II and was consequently isolated from international developments in agriculture. Third, the ECA became directly involved with the College of Agriculture in what was then known as the Los Baños Technical Assistance Project. Cornell became involved soon after. With the strengths of Cornell—known for its extensive research program in all branches of agriculture—and the needs of the college at Los Baños in mind, a contract was signed on July 1, 1952 that introduced the land-grant concept of university service, as adapted to the Philippine context. The land-grant concept emphasized experimentation toward finding solutions to common problems that beset Philippine agriculture (Turk 1974, 30).

Between 1955 and 1960, the UP College of Agriculture had already established a niche for itself in training undergraduate students from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. At the time, the Faculty of Agriculture (affiliated with Universitas Indonesia) was in dire need of research staff.19) As a way out of the situation, Sukotjo, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Bogor, approached the Rockefeller Foundation with a proposal to train Indonesian undergraduate students overseas. The foundation brokered an agreement with Indonesian and Filipino officials for training Indonesian undergraduates from the College of Agriculture, Bogor, at Los Baños and pledged US$120,000.20) By 1957, the first cohort of 12 Indonesian students from the College of Agriculture at Bogor arrived in Los Baños for training, some of them funded by the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) of the US government.21) The Rockefeller–ICA joint initiative to train Indonesian agricultural science undergraduates in the Philippines was intended to deepen friendship among Asian nations.22) The most significant episode for the UP College of Agriculture at Los Baños was the founding of the IRRI.

In 1960, the island of Luzon was viewed as the most logical choice for the establishment of the IRRI (Chandler 1992, 188). The Philippines was a rice-producing country where demand for the crop far outstripped supply. Average production figures were low, and there was a dearth of indigenous agricultural research.23) Los Baños had been a pilgrim destination since pre-Christian times. The IRRI’s proximity to Mount Makiling—a sacred site since pre-Christian times—cast a spiritual aura on the institute that the discovery of miracle rice only confirmed (Cullather 2004, 237). Chandler never explicitly invoked Makiling’s legends, but an imprint of these legends may be echoed in the vernacular names the Filipino press attached to the IRRI’s first varieties, for example, IR8 or “miracle rice.”

The Rockefeller Foundation selected the world-renowned modernist architect Ralph Walker to design the IRRI buildings. Constructed completely out of imported materials, the sprawling one-story aluminum-and-glass structures featured modular walls to encourage an egalitarian office culture (Cullather 2010, 163). Facing the IRRI laboratory building was an experimental farm that replicated climatic conditions across Asia (see Fig. 4).



Fig. 4 The IRRI Building in the Distant Background (1963). Scientists and trainees were expected to wade through the slush of the experimental farm. During the early years of the IRRI, before power tillers were developed, carabaos were used to prepare the experimental plots.

Source: IRRI Archives.


Given the historical context that led to the establishment of the IRRI, what was the focus of the institute? The focus included: (a) developing well-adapted high-yielding varieties of rice suited to tropical climates; (b) genetic study of mutation; (c) research on the physiology of growth, nutrition, and reproduction of rice; (d) studies on the physical composition, soil chemistry, and microbiology of paddy soils; and (e) observing the effects of water and temperature on plant growth. Chandler and his team collected 10,000 varieties of rice worldwide, recorded the characteristic features of each strain, and placed the varieties in cold storage for future use by scientists.24) During the early years (1960–64), research scientists affiliated with the IRRI undertook investigations on tropical varieties of rice which were unreasonably tall and leafy and susceptible to lodging (when plant stems are weak to the point that they can no longer support the grain, causing the plant to fall over). Tropical varieties were susceptible to rice stem borer attacks that reduced yields. Scientists at the institute attempted to identify rice strains resistant to borer attacks and use these strains in developing new high-yielding hybrid varieties.25) The IRRI maintained a program to evaluate the efficacy of insecticides used against stem borers.

During the 1960s, the IRRI established a regional research program and convened periodic conferences that focused on problems of international economic importance, including one that focused on rice blast disease, a leading cause of global food insecurity.26) Senior scientists from the institute trained agricultural educators from Thailand, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Under the vision of Jacob George Harrar, who became president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1961, the IRRI devoted its attention to developing high-yielding varieties of rice suitable for tropical climates. Southeast Asia in general suffered a serious deficit in rice production. The Asian farmer had a “rice complex” that was comparable to the “cotton complex” of the American South.27) The rural population of Asia depended excessively on rice not only as a source of income but also as the main source of food. The IRRI sought to discourage the excessive dependence on rice by undertaking research in leguminous crops such as mung, cowpeas, and soybean that could correct dietary deficiencies.28)

The first decade of the IRRI (1960–70) reflected the imprint of Chandler’s ideas. The IRRI defined the global food problem in Malthusian terms. The task for the institute was to determine how global food production would increase to keep pace with the ever-rising population (Oasa and Jennings 1982, 39). Between the two alternatives of either increasing the yield per unit area or addressing inequities in rural society, IRRI scientists opted for the former. Chandler was concerned about low rice yields and slow adoption of agricultural techniques. His concern alluded to the reluctance of farmers to adopt technological advances. At the same time, he dismissed farmers’ concerns about the costliness of technology as an “excuse” (Oasa and Jennings 1982, 39). In doing so, Chandler accepted inequality in rural society as a given. Research had to eliminate constraints imposed upon higher yields. From the inception of the IRRI, Chandler elected to avoid incremental agricultural improvements and instead go for the big jump strategy that emphasized technology as a catalyst to increase crop productivity (Cullather 2004, 239). Chandler wanted to take plant genetics to its frontiers to show the world that higher yields were possible (see Fig. 5).



Fig. 5 Mechanized Paddy Threshers (1960s)

Source: IRRI Archives: Early Field Experiments and Machines.


Filipino agronomists critiqued the big jump strategy. Dioscoro Umali, dean of the College of Agriculture at UP, noted that high-yielding varieties of rice were contingent upon expensive inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides (Cullather 2004, 240). Shallow-rooted dwarf varieties of plants were dependent on precise hydraulic management that most farmers were unaware of. Farmers were forced to discard nearly all the traditional practices and adopt new techniques for planting, weeding, irrigation, harvesting, and threshing. New chemicals and irrigation would require access to credit networks that local farmers did not have. If adopted, high-yielding rice varieties would radically disrupt the social environment in which the crop was grown. Umali tried to rescue the straightforward objective of increasing rice production from the ballooning expectations that clustered around high-yielding varieties of the crop.

During the formative years of the IRRI (1960–70), crop yields did rise but slowly. The growth of agricultural production across Asia was marginal (less than 3 percent) and barely in line with population growth (Umali 1972). In organizing and institutionalizing the sharing of technology in rice production, the IRRI’s role was limited to assembly and dissemination of knowledge but did not take into account the adaptation of a given technology to suit the needs of specific countries. Despite these shortcomings, the achievements of the IRRI are significant. The institute placed increased emphasis on international scientific exchanges and cooperative research programs between the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. Within the IRRI, a logic different from the stereotype of the Asian farmer as traditional was meant to operate: scientifically ordered spaces within the institute would be populated with an interdisciplinary phalanx of scholars who would work on global issues such as food insecurity. During the 1950s and 1960s, Filipino scientists such as Umali pursued their careers within the confines of national science. But by the 1970s—with the IRRI’s introduction of the Liaison Scientists Program—Umali officiated as the IRRI’s liaison scientist in the People’s Republic of China. He coordinated between international aid agencies such as the FAO—in his capacity as assistant director general and regional representative for Asia and the Far East—and the National Agricultural Research System of China in formulating a national rice production strategy.

“No Variety of Want Is More Individualized than Illness”: The Philippine Medical Association, Socialized Medicine, and Anti-Communist Propaganda

During the early years of the Cold War (1946–47), the American Medical Association (AMA) used socialized medicine as a political weapon to disparage President Truman’s proposal for compulsory national health insurance. The AMA suspected physicians who advocated universal health care of being Communists. At the time, opponents of national health insurance focused on maintaining the professional independence of doctors. Medicine became a blazing focal point in the fundamental struggle to determine whether the United States would become a free or a socialist state (Warner 2013, 1452–1453). The Philippine Medical Association (PMA) during its early years (1939–46) was an affiliate of the AMA.29) Affiliation with the AMA conditioned PMA physicians to be skeptics of the state-centered approach to public health. During the 1950s, the PMA was faced with the dilemma of meeting the goals of the Philippines’ rapidly expanding public health program without compromising on professional standards.

The year 1949 was significant for the working class in the Philippines as President Quirino recommended before Congress the passage of a legislation providing prepaid medical services to rural populations (Department of Health 2014, 3). At the time, a faction within the PMA expressed concern that Quirino’s proposal would lead to the growth of socialized medicine, defined as the total mobilization of medical care under government control (Torres 1949, 249–255). Luis Torres, a PMA physician also affiliated with the Philippine Federation of Private Medical Practitioners, contended that socialized medicine claimed to provide a panacea to the public health problem through the taxation system. But for every peso spent on health care, the proposal to extend prepaid health care to the rural population would entail additional administrative expenditure, for example, 190,000 government employees for a population of 18 million people (Torres 1949, 249–255). One of the weaknesses of socialized medicine, according to Torres, was that it promised too much. The taxpayer made undue demands on doctors’ time and disrupted the doctor-patient relationship. Furthermore, Torres noted that doctors would not be able to maintain confidentiality of patients’ records under a system of socialized medicine, given insurance claims. He warned that socialized medicine sounded the death knell for democracy in the Philippines. But PMA members—particularly Rodolfo Gonzalez, the incoming PMA president (1950)—did not subscribe to Torres’s views.

In 1950, Gonzalez noted that the Philippines suffered an acute shortage of hospital beds for poor patients, estimated at 8,500 for a population of 18 million people (Gonzalez 1950, 187–191). The government did not have enough funds to establish more hospitals, which in Gonzalez’s view led to a vicious cycle. He argued that the less the state took care of the health of the masses, the more difficult it would be for people to engage in productive work, especially agriculture and industry. The less the productivity of the people, the lower would be the state income and the harder it would be for the government to carry out its social amelioration program. Gonzalez appealed to PMA members to help the government by maintaining “charity beds” in private hospitals. Gonzalez’s views with respect to greater state intervention in public health were shared by then Health Secretary Salcedo (1950–53), who was also the president of the PMA between 1952 and 1953.

At the inaugural address of the First Southeast Asian Medical Conference in Manila on May 8, 1951, then incoming PMA President Eugenio Alonso criticized shortcomings of the Quirino administration’s proposal to provide prepaid medical services to rural areas. He pointed out that no variety of want was more individualized than illness. The illness of a wage earner from tuberculosis or the failing health of children due to malnutrition was a problem that needed treatment of individual patients (Alonso 1951, 455). Alonso shed light on the contradiction that although 700 million pesos had been spent by the government on public health by 1951, 90 percent of patients did not see a doctor. He contended that medical inadequacies could be remedied through amelioration of people’s living conditions. He questioned the feasibility of undertaking nutrition research in the Philippines, or educating people about the nutritive value of food, at a time when people did not have enough to eat. Given the lack of consensus within the PMA on the question of expanding rural health care, the association was faced with a dilemma. At the heart of the matter was how to hold the association together when there were so many private practitioners who were fearful of increased competition from the state. One way out of the dilemma was to benefit both private and government practitioners.

In 1951, as the president of the PMA, Alonso proposed major changes in the organization of health work, i.e., decentralization of health activities to rural areas (Stauffer 1966, 96). His underlying rationale was that with the decentralization of the government’s health activities, government physicians would be sent to rural areas. In the process, the scope of state medicine would be expanded, a prospect he hoped would appease government physicians. Alonso hoped that private physicians would like the proposal to dispatch government physicians to more rural areas and free the cities and towns for private practice. But neither of the two camps liked Alonso’s proposal. Government physicians were reluctant to get transferred to remote areas, whereas private physicians were apprehensive of increasing state presence in public health (Stauffer 1966, 96).

In 1952 the Quirino administration, despite opposition from sections of the PMA, succeeded in passing Republic Act 747, “An Act to Regulate the Fees to Be Charged against Patients in Government Hospitals and Charity Clinics Classifying Patients According to Their Financial Condition” (Republic Act 747, 1952). The Act established a classification system for individuals who would be eligible for free treatment in government hospitals. A year later, the Quirino administration liberalized the classification system such that Filipino families with a monthly income of less than 100 pesos qualified as indigents and were eligible for free hospitalization (Stauffer 1966, 127). Nearly 90 percent of Filipinos qualified as indigents under the Act. Subsequent to the passage of Republic Act 747, there was a rapid construction boom of public hospitals. Many small hospitals, acquired through pork-barrel funds, could not be staffed by government doctors (Stauffer 1966, 128).

Public spending on health acquired a new lease of life during the Magsaysay era (1953–57). During his election campaign, Magsaysay made many promises for a better quality of life in the barrios and repeatedly reminded the PMA about expanding medical care to rural areas. He appealed to the association to abandon its “mercenary” zeal and instead return to its “missionary” zeal of service (Stauffer 1966, 123). In line with its preelection promises, the Magsaysay administration had to increase public spending on health and, in turn, increase taxation. Physicians united under the umbrella of the PMA to resist what they interpreted as “socialized medicine” and the deterioration of professional standards, given that a majority of physicians recruited to the Rural Health Units were political appointees (Editorial 1959). The PMA bargained for a subsidy to be provided to Filipino physicians who elected to set up practice in rural areas (Icasiano 1955, 230–233). The then president of the association, M. C. Icasiano, warned the Magsaysay government that medical services in rural areas should not be disbursed as a matter of charity but must be extended on the basis of self-help such that barrios could independently support private practitioners.

During the Garcia presidency (1957–61), Rodolfo Guiang—a private practitioner from Pangasinan and a member of the PMA—proposed an Indigency Plan that was intended to meet the increasing demand for medical care in the Philippines and free densely populated urban areas for private practice (Stauffer 1966, 96). The plan would screen the population to identify those who could be given free medical treatment due to their inability to pay. While working out details of the PMA Indigency Plan with the Department of Health, private physicians realized that the Garcia administration was less cooperative than they had anticipated. The association subsequently began to use socialized medicine as a weapon to break the monopoly of state medicine in dealing with the indigent population of rural Philippines. In 1960, an editorial in the Journal of the Philippine Medical Association noted that “socialization of medicine” was one of the many insidious manifestations of the socialist-Communist monster that was a danger to Philippine democracy (Stauffer 1966, 129). Although the government gave assurances of cooperation with the Indigency Plan, it failed to support the plan financially. The association subsequently worked on the Indigency Plan as a voluntary project.

Until the early 1960s, socialized medicine was a recurring theme in the PMA annual meetings. In 1961, Diosdado Macapagal was elected president of the Philippines. He introduced a comprehensive Five-Year Integrated Plan for the country’s socioeconomic development, proposing improvement of various public services, including the delivery of health care (Department of Health 2014, 104). In 1962, then Health Secretary Francisco Duque designed a plan that would extend medical services to the needy at no additional cost. The PMA labeled the proposed scheme “socialized medicine” that stifled physicians’ individuality and removed incentives for professional advancement (Guiang 1962).

Between 1949 and 1962, the PMA focused on the type of medical care most suitable for the Philippines. In its early efforts to achieve satisfactory distribution of physicians across rural areas, the association advocated that government physicians be sent to rural areas while freeing urban areas for private practice. But the plan did not work, due to mutual distrust between private and government physicians. The association was successful in thwarting any plans for expanding the state’s role in Philippine public health. First, it launched a propaganda campaign through journal articles and newspapers that enlightened the Filipino public regarding the importance of treating diseases at the individual level. Second, the association preyed on the public’s worst fears regarding the loss of doctor-patient relationships and the erosion of professional standards associated with the expansion of public health services. At the same time, it tapped into the Philippine political leadership’s fear of Communism and portrayed socialized medicine as a threat to the nation’s democracy. In a rather demagogic manner, the association used socialized medicine to stifle any debate amongst physicians regarding nationalized health care.


This article does not chronicle the successes or failures of individual disease control programs as they were implemented in the Philippines. Rather, it seeks to understand the niche that applied sciences, particularly nutrition, agriculture, and medicine, occupied with respect to national reconstruction in the aftermath of Philippine independence in 1946.

The lingering question as to whether Philippine science was a variant of postcolonial science more generally, or whether it was imbued with a distinctly national flavor, cannot be easily answered. It entails situating the “postcolonial” in Philippine science. Science was the raison d’être of the modern nation-state. In other words, the phenomenon called state building by modernization theorists was the identification of the state’s projects as uniquely modern: state building crucially depended on the principles of science and technology (Abraham 1997). In the Philippine context, institutions such as the PRR-1 atomic reactor and IRRI belonged to the postcolonial space.

This article highlights three discerning features of postcolonial Philippine science. First, science was packaged as a comprehensive program of delivery intended to address the basic needs of people. Second, Philippine presidents understood science in terms of balancing national needs and nurturing the country’s Cold War ambitions as the leader of the free world in Southeast Asia. But the Philippines’ aspirations as leader of the free world in Southeast Asia were contingent on the availability of US technical assistance. For instance, the Bataan rice enrichment experiment failed to turn into an international model of rice enrichment due to other Asians’ suspicion of Filipinos. As the Philippines was drawn into the US orbit during the Cold War, the Philippine government became less free to reject technical assistance agreements which mandated the involvement of private American corporations. Third, science in postcolonial Philippines was statist, i.e., conducted on behalf of the people but at the discretion of the state. The Philippines inherited colonial scientific bodies such as the Bureau of Science—which drew on the models of similar institutions extant in the US—although the emphasis during the 1950s shifted from basic to applied research.30)

Given the emphasis on packaging science as a comprehensive program of delivery, and the emphasis on applied over basic research, one may infer that Philippine science was a variant of postcolonial science in Southeast Asia and shared parallels with Nehruvian India and Soekarno-era Indonesia (Arnold 2013; Neelakantan 2015b). What distinguished postcolonial Philippine science from its Indian and Indonesian counterparts was its dovetailing with US objectives of subverting the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. For instance, Magsaysay had to emphasize the geopolitical significance of the Philippines—as being in the frontline against Communism in Southeast Asia—while requesting US aid for malaria eradication during the 1950s. In contrast, India and Indonesia sought to achieve a delicate equilibrium between increased receptiveness to foreign aid and maintaining their respective political sovereignty (Arnold 2013, 361; Bu and Yip 2015, 6). A mobilization mentality suffused the practice of science in the Philippines during the 1950s such that the pursuit of knowledge led to new unresolved questions associated with the Cold War, such as socialized medicine—expanding health care access to the entire population—resulting in political deadlocks. These deadlocks, in addition to institutional bottlenecks that seemed almost insurmountable during the 1950s, have stymied the implementation of health legislation to the present.

Accepted: June 26, 2020


Abraham, Itty. 2006. The Contradictory Spaces of Postcolonial Techno-Science. Economic and Political Weekly 41(3): 210–217.

―. 1997. Science and Secrecy in Making of Postcolonial State. Economic and Political Weekly 32(33–34): 2136–2146., accessed May 10, 2020.

Amrith, Sunil. 2006. Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65. Basingstoke: PalgraveMacmillan.

Anderson, Robert. 1991. The Origins of the International Rice Research Institute. Minerva 29(1): 61–89., accessed June 5, 2020.

Anderson, Warwick. 2012. Asia as a Method in Science and Technology Studies. East Asian Science, Technology and Society 6(4): 445–451. doi: 10.1215/18752160-1572849.

―. 2007. Science in the Philippines. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 55(3): 287–318., accessed June 4, 2020.

―. 2002. Postcolonial Technoscience: Introduction. Social Studies of Science 32(5–6): 643–658. doi: 10.1177/030631270203200502.

Anderson, Warwick; and Pols, Hans. 2012. Scientific Patriotism: Medical Science and National Self-Fashioning in Southeast Asia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(1): 93–113. doi: 10.1017/S0010417511000600.

Arnold, David. 2013. Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India. ISIS 104: 360–370. doi: 10.1086/670954.

Baldwin, Robert S. 1975. Robert R. Williams (1886–1965): A Biographical Sketch. Journal of Nutrition 105(1): 1–14.

Basalla, George. 1967. The Spread of Western Science. Science 156: 611–622.

Berger, Mark T. 2003. Decolonisation, Modernisation, and Nation-Building: Political Development Theory and the Appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia, 1945–1975. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34(3): 421–429. doi: 10.1017/S0022463403000419.

Bu Liping; and Yip Ka-Che. 2015. Introduction. In Public Health and National Reconstruction in Post-war Asia: International Influences, Local Transformations, edited by Bu Liping and Yip Ka-Che, pp. 1–12. Abingdon: Routledge.

Chandler, Robert. 1992. An Adventure in Applied Science: A History of the International Rice Research Institute. Manila: IRRI.

Cullather, Nick. 2010. The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

―. 2004. Miracles of Modernization: The Green Revolution and the Apotheosis of Technology. Diplomatic History 28(2): 227–254. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.2004.00407.x.

―. 1993. America’s Boy? Ramon Magsaysay and the Illusion of Influence. Pacific Historical Review 62(3): 305–338. doi:10.2307/3640933.

Fifield, R. H. 1951. The Hukbalahap Today. Far Eastern Survey 20(2): 13–18. doi: 10.2307/3024214.

Goss, Andrew. 2011. The Floracrats: State-Sponsored Science and the Failure of the Enlightenment in Indonesia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Guillermo, Artemio. 2012. Nuclear Energy. In Historical Dictionary of the Philippines, by Artemio Guillermo, pp. 312–313. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Gutierrez, Kathleen. 2018. Rehabilitating Botany in the Postwar Moment: National Promise and Encyclopedism of Eduardo Quisumbing’s Medicinal Plants of the Philippines (1951). Asian Review of World Histories 6: 33–67.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2011. Introduction. In Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics during the Cold War, edited by Gabrielle Hecht, pp. 1–12. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ileto, Reynaldo. 1988. Outlines of a Nonlinear Emplotment of Philippine History. In The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, pp. 98–132. Durham: Duke University Press.

Immerwahr, Daniel. 2015. Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

King, John Kerry. 1953. Rice Politics. Foreign Affairs 31(3): 453–460., accessed May 10, 2020.

Kroef, Justus van der. 1968. Asia’s Brain Drain: The Causes Are Complex and Not Wholly Economic. Journal of Higher Education 39(5): 241–253. doi: 10.1080/00221546.1968.11780280.

Marasigan, Vicente. 1955. Science Survey, 1955. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 4(1): 83–86., accessed October 4, 2019.

McElhinny, Bonnie. 2009. Producing the A-1 Baby Puericulture Centers and the Birth of the Clinic in the US-Occupied Philippines, 1906–1946. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 57(2): 219–260., accessed May 10, 2020.

Merrill, Dennis. 1993. Shaping Third World Development: U.S. Foreign Aid and Supervision in the Philippines. Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2(2): 137–159., accessed May 10, 2020.

Messer, Adam. 1994. Effects of the Indonesian National Revolution and Transfer of Power on the Scientific Establishment. Indonesia 58: 41–68.

Muriel, Amador. 1970. Brain Drain in the Philippines: A Case Study. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 20(7): 38–39. doi: 10.1080/00963402.1970.11457845.

Nawiyanto, S. 2013. The Politics of Food and Food Security during Indonesia’s Old Order (1945–65). Lembaran Sejarah 10(1): 61–73. doi: 10.22146/lembaran-sejarah.23653.

Neelakantan, Vivek. 2019. The Medical Spur to Postcolonial Science in Southeast Asia: Indonesia and the Philippines during the Early Decades of the Cold War. Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports., accessed October 2, 2019.

―. 2015a. Disease Eradication and National Reconstruction in Indonesia and the Philippines during the Early Decades of the Cold War. IIAS Newsletter 71: 4–5.

―. 2015b. The Medical Spur to Postcolonial Indonesian Science: The Soekarno Era. IIAS Newsletter 70: 14–15.

Oasa, Edmund; and Jennings, Bruce H. 1982. Science and Authority in International Agricultural Research. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 14(4): 30–44. doi: 10.1080/14672715.1982.10412667.

Packard, Randall. 1997. Malaria Dreams: Postwar Visions of Health and Development in the Third World. Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 17(3): 279–296. doi: 10.1080/01459740.1997.9966141.

Palladino, Paolo; and Worboys, Michael. 1993. Science and Imperialism. ISIS 84(1): 91–102., accessed May 10, 2020.

Perkins, John H. 1998. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pyenson, Lewis. 1989. Empire of Reason: Exact Sciences in Indonesia, 1880–1940. Leiden: Brill.

Ramirez, Conrado. 1962. Industrial Research in the Philippines. Research Management 5(6): 459–466., accessed May 10, 2020.

Ravenholt, A. 1951. The Philippines: Where Did We Fail? Foreign Affairs 29(3): 406–416., accessed May 10, 2020.

Rockefeller, Nelson. 1951. Widening Boundaries of National Interest. Foreign Affairs 29(4): 523–538. doi: 10.2307/20030859.

Rostow, W. W. 1959. The Stages of Economic Growth. Economic History Review 12(1): 1–10. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1959.tb01829.x.

Stauffer, Robert B. 1966. The Development of an Interest Group: The Philippine Medical Association. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

Turk, Kenneth. 1974. The Cornell-Los Baños Story: Two Decades of Cooperation in Agricultural Education and Research between Cornell University and the University of the Philippines. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Umali, D. 1972. Rice Improvement through International Cooperation. In Rice, Science, and Man, pp. 77–87. Los Baños: IRRI.

Valenzuela, Patrocinio. 1960. The Natural Sciences, 1956–1959. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 8(3): 515–525., accessed May 10, 2020.

Varela, Miguel. 1954. Scientific Research and Philippine Progress. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 2(4): 360–367., accessed May 10, 2020.

Ventura, Theresa. 2020. Prison, Plantation, and Peninsula: Colonial Knowledge and Experimental Technique in the Post-war Bataan Rice Enrichment Project, 1910–1950. History and Technology 35(3): 293–315. doi: 10.1080/07341512.2019.1680153.

Warner, John Harley. 2013. The Doctor in Early Cold War America. Lancet 381 (9876): 1452–1453. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60915-0.

Williams, Robert R. 1961. Toward the Conquest of Beriberi. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Primary Sources
Republic Act No. 747. 1952. An Act to Regulate the Fees to Be Charged against Patients in Government Hospitals and Charity Clinics Classifying Patients According to Their Financial Condition. Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines., accessed November 3, 2020.

Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library
Papers: John F. Dulles, Dennis Fitzgerald.

Records, White House Office of the Special Assistant: NSC Series, Policy Papers Subseries.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library

Papers: Frank Waring.

Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Foundation Records, Projects, FA 387A, RG 1.2, Series 242: Philippines.

Rockefeller Foundation Records, Projects, FA 388, RG 1.3, Series 242D: Philippines Natural Sciences and Agriculture.

Contemporary Medical Journals
Alonso, Eugenio. 1951. Inaugural Address of the Philippine Medical Association Convention and First Southeast Asia Medical Conference, Manila. Philippine Medical World 6(6): 455–459.

Editorial. 1958. An Appeal to the Senate of the Philippines by House of Representatives to Repeal Proposed Bill to Repeal the Rice Enrichment Act. Nutrition News 11(2).

Editorial. 1959. Philippine Medical Association. Journal of the Philippine Medical Association 35.

Ford, Malcolm; and Cruz, Amadeo. 1957. The Rural Health Unit in the Philippines. Public Health Reports 72(8): 687–696.

Francisco, J. 1950. The Malaria Problem in the Philippines Today. Journal of the Philippine Medical Association 25(7): 347–350.

Gonzalez, Rodolfo. 1950. Inaugural Address of Rodolfo Gonzalez: Incoming President of the PMA. Journal of the Philippine Medical Association 36(5): 187–191.

Guiang, R. V. 1962. Should the Philippines Adopt the Socialized Medicine of England. Journal of the Philippine Medical Association 38: 799–807.

Icasiano, M. C. 1955. Inaugural Address of M. C. Icasiano: President of the Philippine Medical Association. Journal of the Philippine Medical Association 30(5): 230–233.

Mercado, Carmen. 1956. Report on the FAO-Nutrition Meeting for South and Southeast Asia, Tokyo, Japan, September 25–October 2. Nutrition News 9(4): 1–10.

Salcedo, Juan. 1962. Etiology and Prevention of Thiamine Deficiency in the Philippine Islands. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 98(2): 568–575.

Salcedo, Juan et al. 1950. Artificial Enrichment of White Rice as a Solution to Endemic Beriberi. Journal of Nutrition 42(4): 501–523. doi: 10.1093/jn/42.4.501.

Torres, Luis. 1949. Socialized Medicine: Its Dangers and Pitfalls. Philippine Medical World 4(8): 249–255.

Valencia, Elpedio. 1960. Speech by Health Secretary Elpedio Valencia. Nutrition News 13(4): 46–49.

Filipino Presidential Speeches
Magsaysay, Ramon. 1956. On the State of the Nation: Third State of the Nation Address. January 23. Official Gazette., accessed September 27, 2019.

―. 1955. On the State of the Nation: Second State of the Nation Address. January 24. Official Gazette., accessed September 27, 2019.

―. 1954. On the State of the Nation: First State of the Nation Address. January 25. Official Gazette., accessed September 20, 2019.

Quirino, Elpedio. 1949. The Most Urgent Aim of the Administration: State of the Nation Address. January 24. Official Gazette., accessed September 23, 2019.

Roxas, Manuel. 1946. On the State of the Nation: Message of His Excellency Manuel Roxas President of the Philippines to the Second Congress. June 3. Official Gazette., accessed September 22, 2019.

Institute of Current World Affairs
Doc. CHGO-22.

Medical Biography
Williams, Robert. 1985. The Bataan Experiment. In Juan Salcedo Jr.: National Scientist, edited by Velora A. Corpus, pp. 45–55. Quezon City: Nutrition Foundation of the Philippines.

National Research Council
National Research Council. 1958. Cereal Enrichment in Perspective, 1958. Washington, DC: National Academies Press., accessed May 25, 2020.

UNESCO Document
UNESCO Report No. NS/71.

US Department of State: Office of the Historian
Claussen, Paul; Glennon, John; Mabon, David; Peterson, Neal; and Raether, Carl, eds. 1977. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, East Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 6, Part 2. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

McMahon, Robert; Schwar, Harriett; and Smith, Louis, eds. 1989. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957, Southeast Asia, Vol. 22. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Peterson, Neal; Slany, William; Sampson, Charles; Glennon, John; and Mabon, David, eds. 1976. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, East Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 6. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

The Philippines Department of Health
Department of Health. 2014. A Legacy of Public Health: The Department of Health Story. Manila: Department of Health.

1) After its efforts to implement communitarian strategies as part of the New Deal (1933–39) failed, the US bankrolled community development programs in the Global South, in the aftermath of World War II. Such measures were calculated to win political loyalties of local villages in the fight against Communism. The US included a community development program in its bilateral aid package to India in 1952. It invested great hopes in India’s community development program that focused on democratic decentralization. But the benefits of the Indian program were elusive. Local development plans were modest in their ambition and focused on the construction of wells, market roads, and community centers that benefited well-off members of the village communities. Conspicuously absent from the community development initiatives in India were issues associated with social inequality. In contrast, in the Philippines—where the Huk rebellion threatened to topple the government—the community development program was seen by the US government as a form of counterinsurgency. Through community development, Filipino politicians sought to create vertical bonds that linked peasants to landlords and crowd out the dangers of peasant solidarity. Around 1953, when the Huk rebellion subsided, the US exported the Philippine variant of the community development program to Vietnam.

2) The Huk rebellion—a peasant-based guerrilla insurrection—was directed originally against Japanese occupation (1942–45) and later against the failure of Roxas’s social welfare program as the legislation had several loopholes. The economic objectives of the Huks—developed between 1946 and 1950—reflected a strong Communist orientation by 1950. The Huks advocated real independence for the Philippines, “unsullied” and “unadulterated” by economic ties with the US, such as the Bell Act. Instead, they advocated a more equitable crop distribution between landlord and tenant, government purchase of large landed estates and their sale to tenants, and agricultural loans to aid small farmers. As the Huks were unable to get along with Quirino, they backed José Laurel. However, the Huk candidate lost the 1949 presidential election against the Liberal candidate, Quirino. Consequently, the Huks denounced electoral processes. The Huk Politburo declared the existence of a “revolutionary situation” in January 1950 and advocated an armed overthrow of the government. By March 1950 the Huks asserted their manifesto, “New Democracy,” which would erase the economic, political, and cultural domination of the US, feudal landlords, and the Liberal Party and instead place political control in the hands of the Filipino peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. For details, see Fifield (1951).

3) In 1948, the republican government in Indonesia designed a three-year food production plan (christened the Kasimo Plan, after then Minister of Food Affairs I. J. Kasimo) aimed at achieving self-reliance in food. In order to guarantee a high quality of rice, Kasimo advocated the creation of seedling gardens. For a parallel with Indonesia, refer to Nawiyanto (2013).

4) US Public Health Report of the Philippines Public Health Rehabilitation: July 4, 1946 to June 30, 1950, Frank Waring Papers, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.

5) US Public Health Report of the Philippines Public Health Rehabilitation: July 4, 1946 to June 30, 1950, Frank Waring Papers, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.

6) US Public Health Report of the Philippines Public Health Rehabilitation: July 4, 1946 to June 30, 1950, Frank Waring Papers, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.

7) By 1950 Huk leadership had been taken over by the Communists, who alleged that the Philippine government was a “puppet” in the hands of the US. See, for example, Neal Peterson et al., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, East Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976).

8) Paul Claussen et al., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, East Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 6, Part 2 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1977).

9) The notion of self-help was evolved by the Magsaysay administration to attack the root causes of rural poverty by stimulating community initiative and responsibility.

10) Draft of Eisenhower’s Speech, 1955, File White House Correspondence: General Files, John Foster Dulles Papers, Box 5, Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library.

11) Draft of Eisenhower’s Speech, 1955, File White House Correspondence: General Files, John Foster Dulles Papers, Box 5, Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library.

12) Policy toward Philippines, File NSC 5413/1, NSC Series: Policy Papers Subseries, White House Office of Special Assistant: NSC Records, 1952 to 1961, Box 10, Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library.

13) Donald Stone, Common Administrative Obstacles to Development, Dated January to April 1961, Dennis Fitzgerald Papers, Box 5, Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library.

14) Robert McMahon et al., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957, Southeast Asia, Vol. 22 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1989).

15) Letter from President Magsaysay to US Secretary of State Dulles, March 15, 1956.

16) S. N. Dasgupta, Status of Research in the Philippines 1948 (I), UNESCO Report No. UNESCO NS/71, January 18, 1950.

17) Letter from C. H. G. Oldham to R. H. Nolte, Science in the Philippines: Problems and Opinions, January 6, 1964, Doc CHGO-22, Institute of Current World Affairs.

18) The Ford Foundation had allotted US$250,000 for land purchases and architectural fees, whereas the Rockefeller Foundation had advanced US$165,000 to meet the operational costs for 1960 (see Turk 1974, 187).

19) University of the Philippines: College of Agriculture, Indonesia Scholarships, Record Group (RG) 1.2, Finding Aid (FA) 387A, Series 242 D, Box 12, File 98, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).

20) Letter from J. C. Harrar, Rockefeller Foundation, to Dr. Vidal Tan, President of UP, November 9, 1955, FA 387A, RG 1.2, Series 242 D, Box 12, File 98, RAC.

21) Correspondence between Robert Chandler and George Trduerger, May 13, 1957, FA 387A, RG 1.2, Series 242 D, Box 12, File 99, RAC.

22) Correspondence between Robert Chandler and George Trduerger, May 13, 1957.

23) NSDB Role in Science Progress in the Philippines, University of the Philippines [Undated], FA 387 A, RG 1.2, Series 242, Box 1, File 1, RAC.

24) IRRI: Brief Description of Training Program, November 2, 1962, FA 388, RG 1.3, Subseries 242 D, Box 17, File 168, RAC.

25) IRRI, Proposal to the US Agency for International Development [Undated], FA 388, RG 1.3, Series 242 D, Box 17, Folder 171, RAC.

26) Draft of a Proposal to the Ford Foundation for Support of Certain Phases of the Training and Regional Program of the IRRI [Undated], FA 388, RG1.3, Series 242D, Box 17, File 164, RAC.

27) Letter from Norman Efferson, Louisiana State University Agricultural College, to the Rockefeller Foundation, August 27, 1963, FA 388, RG 1.3, Series 242 D, Box 17, File 171, RAC.

28) The Improvement of Grain Legumes Production: Communication from the IRRI [Undated], FA 388, RG 1.3, Series 242 D, Box 17, File 170, RAC.

29) The Philippine Islands Medical Association, precursor of the PMA, was founded in 1903 as an affiliate of the AMA. By 1921, Filipino physicians had become members of the association. By 1932, private practitioners had splintered from the Philippine Islands Medical Association and founded the Philippine Federation of Private Medical Practitioners, although many members of the federation continued to hold membership of the former. In 1939, the Philippine Islands Medical Association was renamed the PMA to reflect its nationalist orientation.

30) For a comparison with Indonesia, see Messer (1994) and Goss (2011).


Vol. 10, No. 1, Iwai Misaki


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Care Relations and Custody of Return-Migrant Children in Rural Vietnam: Cases in the Mekong Delta

Iwai Misaki*

*岩井美佐紀, Department of Asian Languages, Kanda University of International Studies, 1-4-1 Wakaba, Mihama-ku, Chiba 261-0016, Japan
e-mail: misakii[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_33

In the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, there are a number of multiethnic children who are foreign nationals and have lived apart from their mothers for a long time. They were born in East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Korea and raised by their maternal relatives. This paper aims to examine the diverse experiences of return-migrant children and analyze care relations and custody over the children between absent mothers and maternal relatives, by exploring three cases obtained through my fieldwork. Absent mothers are divided into three types according to their marital status: (1) married women, (2) remarried women living in foreign countries, and (3) divorced women living apart from their children in Vietnam. In many cases they are unable to fulfill their duties or make decisions regarding their children’s welfare and interests since they live far away and are not always in touch with the children. Consequently, they are heavily dependent on their relatives. In place of absent mothers, foster parents—mainly grandparents or aunts who live together and take care of the children—try to maintain a legal and educational environment to ensure custody of the children. It is important to understand the difference between physical and legal custody, as well as two types of mothers: practical and biological.

Keywords: transnational marriage/divorce, multiethnic children, return migration, absent mothers, maternal relatives, custody, Mekong Delta

I Introduction

Since the 1990s, when Vietnam entered thời kỳ hội nhập quốc tế (the era of global integration), the Mekong Delta has been a major source of marriage migrants to Taiwan and South Korea (Phan An et al. 2005; Hugo and Nguyen Thi Hong Xoan 2007; Nguyen Xoan and Tran Xuyen 2010; Iwai 2013; Phạm Văn Bích and Iwai 2014a; 2014b). Many Vietnamese-born women have sent their children back to Vietnam after giving birth in these other countries. There are various reasons for this, including divorce (Cửu Long 2016; Le Hien Anh 2016; Văn Vĩnh 2016).

This paper focuses on return-migrant children who were born in foreign countries and sent to their maternal home to be raised. Who raises these children who spend a long time away from their mothers in childhood, and how does the relationship between the children and their new caregivers affect the children’s relationship with their absent mothers? Why do the mothers ask their relatives to raise their children? This study examines the meanings of children’s cross-border migration and the formation of transnational families. By exploring the social roles of maternal relatives, I aim to clarify the various aspects of care relations involved in child-rearing in rural Vietnam.

Several studies have discussed children left behind in their homes due to increasing cross-border labor migration. For example, research has shown that in the Philippines and Indonesia, where women often go abroad to work as domestic workers or caregivers, the children left behind are raised by aunts, grandmothers, or other relatives (Nagasaka 1998; 2009; Parreñas 2001; 2005; Ogaya 2016; Lam and Yeoh 2019). Arlie Hochschild (2000) regarded this phenomenon as the formation of “global chains of care” for child-rearing between two transnational families. However, there are not many prior studies on the return migration of multiethnic children from transnational marriages. In Thailand and Vietnam, where several women marry foreign men and later divorce, the mothers frequently send their children back to their home villages, asking their relatives to raise them (Ishii 2016, 125–127; Le Hien Anh 2016, 183). Only a few studies refer to the everyday lives and experiences of these children and the care arrangements between the mothers and their relatives.

Essentially, children’s relatively flexible mobility is a common feature of family relations in Southeast Asia. For example, if parents die or divorce or migrate for work to big cities, their children typically move between different households and are taken care of by consanguineal kin such as grandparents or aunts in rural areas (Kiso 2012, 473–476; 2019, 371–374; Sato 2012, 345–358).

Gerald Hickey (1964, 110–111) made similar observations about child-rearing in a rural village in the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam: (1) many children received much of their caregiving from older siblings or cousins who lived nearby, and (2) children could wander into neighbors’ houses without fear of being punished and were welcomed as if they were family members. According to A. Terry Rambo (2005), these flexible and wider family relations and higher mobility in the Mekong Delta reflect the characteristics of an open peasant community.

As the above-mentioned sources have shown, in Southeast Asia flexible care relations are woven by social networks and multiple ties based on kinship, and this social function may support and promote women’s labor migration both within and across national borders (Hayami 2012, 12–18). Janet Carsten (2000) has highlighted the distinction between social and biological aspects of kinship in bilateral societies such as Malays and suggested that it is helpful to understand “local cultures of relatedness” (Carsten 2000, 25–29). According to Carsten, relatedness is created both by ties of procreation and through everyday practices of feeding and living together in the house (Carsten 2000, 18). In addition, “relatedness” is deeply connected with the ethics of care. Carol Gilligan (2003) suggests that women as practitioners of care always consider who needs help and what relations are most important.

An important point in this study is the absence of the mothers of transnational families. How have children with foreign roots grown up in the absence of their mothers? How are the absent mothers able to fulfill their role as guardians? Here we focus on varied aspects of custody in the context of everyday practice in rural Vietnamese society.

II Methodology and Research Site

This discussion is based on the results of non-consecutive fieldwork conducted in Vi Thang commune in Hau Giang Province, Vietnam, which as of August and December 2017 and February 2019 had the second-highest number in the country of married migrant women from the Mekong Delta. This study is based on data about return-migrant children who were living in the commune as of December 2017. The December 2017 and February 2019 fieldwork collected supplemental information on the children.

Vi Thang is an agricultural commune located 200 km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City and 50 km southwest of Can Tho city center. As of April 2017 the commune had a population of 9,559 people, with 2,351 households residing in seven hamlets. Vi Thang was chosen because Vietnamese newspaper articles reported that elementary schools in the commune had accepted children without birth certificates as part of a humanitarian effort. These children attended classes as “non-members” (học gửi), meaning that they were not included on student lists and did not enjoy the same rights as their classmates (Hoài Thanh 2016; Ngọc Tài 2016; Văn Vĩnh 2016).

This study is based on observations and in-depth interviews with various stakeholders—including some returning migrant mothers, their children, and their relatives (e.g., parents and siblings)—conducted in 16 households. The perspectives of 18 return-migrant children are represented in the discussion.

In terms of methodology, for carrying out fieldwork I identified and obtained access to participants with the assistance of local organizations as well as schools. Prior to field research, I contacted executives of the Vietnamese Women’s Union (VWU) in Hau Giang Province and obtained general information concerning return-migrant children. The VWU provides legal support for international marriage and divorce matters. Full-time social workers belonging to the VWU attended each family interview visit, as they had a good grasp of the individual cases and were in a position to provide advice on legal procedures. All interviews were conducted with their cooperation. In addition, the vice-president of Vi Thuy District (former president of Vi Thang) and the present president of Vi Thang commune, both of whom knew the local situation well, assisted with interviews and family visits.

Because most mothers were absent, I managed to conduct interviews with only three mothers. Many of the mothers had left home for the big city. Consequently, the interviews were conducted mainly with the children’s grandparents or aunts (mothers’ sisters). Therefore, any information about the mothers must be viewed with caution, since it was provided by a variety of people who were likely to have different interests and views about marriage migration and the resulting children.

Return-migrant children in Vi Thang commune who were foreign nationals may be classified as living in three types of household:

Type 1, Two-parent transnational households: The children were born in foreign countries and migrated to Vietnam temporarily while their parents resided abroad and faced economic difficulties.

Type 2, Remarried mother transnational households: The children returned to Vietnam, while their divorced mothers lived in foreign countries and remarried foreign men.

Type 3, Single mother proximate households: The children were born in foreign countries and returned to Vietnam accompanied by their mothers following the latters’ divorce (or separation). The mothers temporarily cared for their children in proximity but eventually remigrated to work in larger cities, such as Ho Chi Minh City.

In each household type, mothers and children do not live in proximity to one another, thus challenging traditional gender notions of the family according to which women are responsible for overall family life (đảm đang), especially childcare and household budgeting (Lê Thị Nhâm Tuyết 1975; Pham Van Bich 1999, 38–39). The mothers support the family via regular remittances, while the children are raised by maternal relatives.

III Background of Return-Migrant Children in Rural Vietnam

III-1 From Foreign Brides to Mothers of Multiethnic Children

According to the results of the interview survey of Vi Thang commune members, the women who entered into transnational marriages had all arranged to meet foreign men through brokers in Ho Chi Minh City. Fig. 1 shows the number of transnationally married women from the commune. As shown in the figure, there were 470 married migrant women in the commune between 1999 and the end of April 2017. Of them, 255 were married to Koreans, 206 to Taiwanese, 7 to mainland Chinese, and 2 to Americans. The characteristics of marriage migration from the commune to foreign countries are similar to those of Vietnam as a whole. In short, before 2006 Taiwan was the most common destination for marriage migration, and after 2006 Korea became the most common destination, due to changes in Taiwanese immigration policies (Iwai 2013, 143–145). The commune’s government did not know the number of divorced migrant women.



Fig. 1 Women from Vi Thang Commune Married to Foreigners

Source: Created by author based on UBND xã Vị Thắng (2017).


The interviews revealed that three women had returned home during pregnancy and given birth there: one planned to return to Korea after childbirth, and two women who divorced after returning to Vietnam remigrated to Ho Chi Minh City after childbirth.

In what Nicole Constable (2005) calls the gendered geographies of power, poor and low-educated women who cannot achieve social or economic mobility in their own countries marry men from much more wealthy countries in order to fulfill two desires: to provide economic support for families back home and to change their own lives in their host countries (Constable 2005, 5–7; Lu and Yang 2010, 20–21). For example, Phung’s case is typical. Phung was born in 1989 and married a Korean man 16 years older than her through a group match party organized in Ho Chi Minh City in 2001. Phung decided to marry a foreign man because she wanted to help her parents economically, and her parents did not object. Phung’s mother explained, “My daughter told us that she wanted to help her poor parents who were facing difficulties. She intended to work and send remittances.” The image of the bride that came up in the interview with the parents was of a “daughter who has sacrificed for the family.”

Table 1 presents personal information on the 11 internationally married women who lived away from their children.1)

As shown in Table 1, most of the women had married at a young age, four of them while still teenagers. In general, their educational level was quite low. This image of Vietnamese marriage migrants is consistent with that described by other researchers (Phan An et al. 2005; Hugo and Nguyen Thi Hong Xoan 2007; Nguyen Xoan and Tran Xuyen 2010; Le Hien Anh 2016). As for household types, six of the women continued in a marital relationship (type 1), one woman remarried in a foreign country (type 2), and four women remigrated to big cities (type 3).


Table 1 Characteristics of Absent Mothers Whose Multiethnic Children Returned and Are Living in Vi Thang Commune



The daughters’ motivations were not always in line with their parents’ thoughts. The results of the interviews with married immigrant women revealed their positive emotions, such as longing and hope for the unknown world, as expressed in statements such as the following: “I wanted to change my life,” “I wanted to expand my possibilities,” and “I wanted to get on the plane to go abroad” (Phạm Văn Bích and Iwai 2014a). These individual aspirations were followed by economic reasons, such as helping poor parents in rural Vietnam. Such positive attitudes and efforts on the part of the women have not been sufficiently identified in previous research.

III-2 The Role of Maternal Grandparents in Childbirth Support

The women’s fiduciary relationship with their biological families—which is maintained through remittances to their home countries—and their desire to have children who would give them future stability in their host countries are extremely important motivations for the women’s migration. In most cases, foreign brides obtain a status of residence on their spouse’s visa when they marry Taiwanese or Korean men. Most of them get pregnant and give birth within one year. After the children are born, the mother’s nationality position shifts. In other words, a mother with a biological citizen child is guaranteed legal status in the country. Therefore, the women often apply for naturalization from Vietnamese nationality to Taiwanese or Korean nationality, with the help of their husbands. In East Asian societies, where the birthrate is declining and the population is aging, especially in rural areas, there is strong pressure to give birth to a son. This is the main task of foreign brides, and not only they, but also their parents, are well aware of this.

For example, a pair of grandparents who are currently raising a Korean multiethnic grandson, Huyn, recalled the time before their daughter Phung gave birth to him, which was 10 years after her marriage. Until that pregnancy, her 10 years of infertility had worried her parents. Phung’s father recalled:

I brought some medicine to help my daughter become pregnant. Thanks to the medicine, my daughter was able to get pregnant six months later. We took care of her in Korea so that she could give birth safely. Having a child was important so that my daughter could live there in a stable way.

During Phung’s pregnancy both her parents went to Korea, where her mother stayed for eight months and her father for three. After some time back in Vietnam, the mother returned to Korea and looked after Huyn while Phung started to work. Eleven months later the mother returned to Vietnam with Huyn. Phung’s remittances from Korea helped her parents build a new house. In addition, her mother was able to earn an income by working illegally while staying in Korea.2)

Thus, Phung’s cross-border marriage brought about two turning points for her family of origin. First, producing children for her Korean husband’s family was her most essential role, by which she fulfilled her obligation as a daughter-in-law and established a stable legal position in the family. This was important, as until she gave birth to a child she was not allowed to work and earn money, which would have enabled her to send remittances to her family of origin in Vietnam.

Second, Huyn’s Vietnamese maternal grandparents are fully responsible for broader childcare, including pregnancy, childbirth, and child raising. That was why they provided Phung with fertility medication. In their eyes, it was natural for them to travel to Korea and care for their grandson while both of Huyn’s parents worked full-time, as well as to accept Huyn in their home in Vietnam. Such a situation often occurs when the husband’s parents are old or have passed away. Since Huyn “returned home” with his grandparents to Vietnam, Phung has been sending regular remittances to cover his food and other expenses. Child migration is thus a major factor for both families (the woman’s family of marriage in Korea as well as her family of origin in Vietnam) to acquire mutual assistance in their daily lives.

III-3 Characteristics of Multiethnic Children Who Returned to Vietnam

According to Vi Thang commune’s statistics, there were 27 children with foreign nationality in the commune as of April 2017: 11 Koreans, 12 Taiwanese, 1 mainland Chinese, 2 Malaysians, and 1 Vietnamese (Fig. 2). Clearly, there were a large number of children who returned to Vietnam during the period 2011–15.



Fig. 2 Return-Migrant Children with Temporary Resident Registration in Vi Thang Commune

Source: Created by author based on UBND xã Vị Thắng (2017).


However, this data does not reflect the actual number of multiethnic children living in the commune but indicates the time that return-migrant children were registered as temporary residents of the commune.3) According to the author’s fieldwork, with cooperation from the president of the VWU at the commune level, there were 18 multiethnic children living in the commune as of December 2017. The reason the numbers are different is that when some children left the commune, their maternal relatives did not notify the commune government. Of the 18 multiethnic children, 11 lived apart from their mothers. The other seven lived with their mothers in Vietnam.4)

Table 2 presents the situation of the 11 multiethnic children who lived apart from their mothers.


Table 2 Characteristics of Multiethnic Children of Absent Mothers

As of December 2017



First, by family type, five children lived apart from their two parents in foreign countries (type 1), two children’s mothers had remarried in foreign countries (type 2), and four children lived apart from their divorced/separated mothers after they returned to Vietnam (type 3).

Second, the majority of the children were students of elementary school age or younger. There was little difference in gender among the children: six boys and five girls.

Third, nearly all the children returned to Vietnam during their infancy—some while still lactating. Three of them returned to their mothers’ home before birth, and their mothers left for Korea or Ho Chi Minh City several months after giving birth. Indeed, the mothers discontinued breastfeeding after several months and lived apart from their children. In place of the mothers, the children’s maternal relatives—grandmothers and aunts—discharged the motherly duties.

Fourth, most of the 11 children were born and registered in their father’s country, thereby acquiring citizenship in that nation. Four of the children were Korean and three Taiwanese; among them, two were former Korean or Taiwanese nationals whose passports had expired long ago. Another child had dual nationality (Korean-Vietnamese). Of the two children with Vietnamese nationality, one returned from Korea to Vietnam in utero and was registered after her mother was divorced; the other was adopted by a maternal aunt in Ho Chi Minh City after returning from Korea at the age of 20 months.5) One girl was stateless: she was born in Vietnam, but her birth was not registered with the local authorities because the mother had not yet officially divorced her Korean husband.

Finally, all the children had been raised for many years by their maternal families (seven by grandparents and four by aunts). No children were raised by anybody else. Consequently, most of them attended school while in the care of their grandparents or aunts.

IV Child Raising and Maternal Family Relations in Rural Vietnam

As seen above, return-migrant children are raised by maternal relatives instead of absent mothers who are busy working and cannot afford to take care of their infants. Based on the interviews, the reasons for this situation are as follows:

1)Most of the mothers’ parents-in-law are quite old, so it is difficult for them to care for their grandchildren. Even when the parents-in-law agree to take care of their grandchildren, they require the couple to pay the high cost of childcare, which strains the couple’s family budget.

2)Childcare costs in Vietnam are much cheaper, and thus the financial burden on couples is reduced when maternal relatives care for the children. In southern Vietnamese society, there are many flexible arrangements for the raising of children by maternal relatives. This can be seen in Hickey’s description of the importance of consanguineal and non-kin groups who reside in proximate houses and share everyday practices of mutual aid (Hickey 1964, 93–96).

For these reasons, return-migrant children leave their parents, move across the border, and are raised by maternal relatives living in rural areas of Vietnam.

In the next subsections IV-1–IV-4, the child-rearing patterns around children whose mothers are absent and living separately will be examined in relation to the children’s intimate relationship with their maternal relatives.

IV-1 The Case of Ngoc Dinh: Type 1

Ngoc Dinh, born in Taiwan in 2010, had been living with her maternal grandparents for six years, ever since she was eight months old. Her parents, who work full-time and live in Taiwan, cannot take care of her, so they have entrusted her maternal grandparents with her upbringing (Fig. 3 ). Ngoc Dinh’s sister had the same experience in that she spent several years in her maternal grandparents’ home before returning to Taiwan for elementary school. According to Ngoc Dinh’s grandmother, her daughter intends to take Ngoc Dinh back to Taiwan after she graduates from elementary school.



Fig. 3 Household Composition of Ngoc Dinh’s Family <Type 1>

Source: Based on author’s interview in 2017.


To the interview question “How are you in touch with your mother?” Ngoc Dinh answered, “I tell my mom what it was like today over the phone every night.” She looks forward to talking to her mother on a free VoIP phone call at 6 p.m. every day. Ngoc Dinh continued, “I don’t talk with my father because he cannot understand Vietnamese. My sister can speak Chinese, but she speaks Vietnamese well.”

Ngoc Dinh has visited Taiwan a couple of times during her six years living in Vietnam, but always with her grandmother. When her grandmother returned to Vietnam, she preferred to go with her rather than remain in Taiwan.

In response to the interview question “What do you want to do in the future?” Ngoc Dinh said, “I want to live in Vietnam forever. I can’t imagine living away from my grandparents. My grandma says that my mouth and nose look exactly like my mom’s.”

Having lived in Vietnam for six years, Ngoc Dinh is completely comfortable with her life there with her grandparents. She feels happy to be like her mother, but she has noticed a certain emotional distance from her father, who cannot communicate in Vietnamese.

With regard to the grandparents’ experience of this situation, the grandmother shared that Ngoc Dinh’s sister had also been entrusted to them from the age of 14 months to six years. In this way, through the experience of raising two granddaughters, the grandparents seemed to once again enjoy “parenting.” The grandmother commented:

My granddaughter likes Taiwan, but just to go sightseeing. When we returned to Vietnam, she didn’t want to stay in Taiwan but returned with us. She is very close to her friends, and nobody knows that she is a multiethnic child, between Vietnam and Taiwan.

Ngoc Dinh attends elementary school informally. Local schools allow children to enroll formally as long as a birth certificate is submitted before graduation. Ngoc Dinh’s grandparents want to get her birth certificate from Taiwan so that she can officially enroll at school, but her mother has not sent it. Ngoc Dinh showed us many award certificates given by the school and remarked that her favorite subject was Vietnamese and that she wanted to become a teacher.

IV-2 The Case of Bao: Type 2

Bao was born in 2013. His mother is Vietnamese and father Taiwanese. His mother returned to Vietnam eight months pregnant and gave birth to Bao there. Several months later his mother, who was already naturalized as a Taiwanese national, returned to Taiwan alone, without Bao.

As shown in Fig. 4 , Bao now lives with his maternal aunt’s family, which includes the aunt, her husband, two daughters, and the aunt’s parents-in-law. Aunt Dam is raising her nephew Bao along with her own two young daughters. According to Dam, her husband loves Bao deeply as his own son, and so do her parents-in-law. Dam’s parents-in-law take the responsibility of dropping and picking up Bao by bike every day from kindergarten. Bao, like his cousins, calls his aunt “mother,” his aunt’s husband “father,” and his aunt’s parents-in-law “grandpa” and “grandma.” Although the grandparents are not blood relatives but affinal kin, they do not distinguish Bao from their granddaughters.



Fig. 4 Household Composition of Bao’s Family <Type 2>

Source: Based on author’s interview in 2017.


Bao’s mother resides in a small city in Taiwan. She has been married three times, and Bao is from her second husband, who died before she gave birth. She also has a child from her first marriage, and she now lives with that child. After her second husband died, she returned to Vietnam while pregnant and gave birth to Bao. After several months she returned to Taiwan, and Bao was left behind to live in his aunt’s home.

The reason Bao was entrusted to his aunt was that Bao’s maternal grandmother, who was also in Taiwan, was unable to look after him because she was working illegally. A few years ago, Bao’s mother remarried a Taiwanese man and had a child with him. Bao’s grandmother helps to take care of that child in Taiwan. According to Dam, the mother wants to take Bao back to Taiwan in a few years.

IV-3 The Case of Nhi: Type 3

In this subsection we examine the case of a child in a family with an absent single mother (type 3). Nhi was born in Vietnam in 2009 and was in the third grade at the time of the interview. Nhi has family registration in her maternal grandfather’s hamlet, although she lives in another hamlet with her maternal aunt’s family. Thus, her nationality is Vietnamese.

Nhi’s mother moved from Korea to Vietnam while six months pregnant and gave birth in Vietnam. She decided to separate from her husband because of his repeated domestic violence, his extremely sloppy behavior, and his disapproval of her work. About a year after their separation, she was officially divorced. The Korean father knew of Nhi’s birth and visited her one year later.

Nhi’s mother went to work in Ho Chi Minh City eight months after giving birth, and since then Aunt Muoi has taken care of Nhi on behalf of her mother (Fig. 5). Nhi calls both her aunt and birth mother “mother.” She distinguishes the two mothers as “má mập” (fat mom) (aunt) and “má ốm” (thin mom) (biological mother). Neighbors believe that Nhi is Muoi’s biological daughter, and Muoi has not attempted to clear up this misunderstanding. Her husband also loves Nhi as his own child. Muoi recently started taking Nhi to free Korean language lessons organized every weekend by the Korea Center for United Nations Human Rights Policy (KOCUN).6) However, since it is a one-hour bike ride from the commune to Can Tho city, Nhi stopped going.



Fig. 5 Household Composition of Nhi’s Family <Type 3>

Source: Based on author’s interview in 2017.


A couple of years ago Nhi’s mother remarried a Vietnamese man who worked in the same factory in Ho Chi Minh City, and they had a son. However, they are now divorced and Nhi’s mother is raising the boy on her own. Nhi sometimes visits her mother and younger half-brother in Ho Chi Minh City, but after a few days Muoi calls and urges Nhi to return home. Nhi’s Korean father says that he wants to take her to Korea when she is 18, and until then he wants Muoi to raise her. However, he has never paid any child support. In August 2017 I encountered the father while he was looking to remarry in the hamlet. Later, he stayed at Muoi’s house and ate meals there, but he said that he did not need to pay any money while there.

IV-4 Relatedness and Custody of Multiethnic Children Who Live Apart from Their Mothers

We will now consider the relations between multiethnic children with foreign roots and their guardians. In particular, we will examine the guardians’ strong attachment to the children in terms of custody.

In the case of Ngoc Dinh, the grandparents want to support their daughter by providing for their granddaughter what they did not give their own children when they were young and hardworking. They are very proud of their grandchild being awarded certificates at school and seem to be very happy with her growth. In the case of type 1 families, where the parents or remarried mothers regularly send remittances to the grandparents, it is sufficient for grandparents to focus their attention on their grandchildren’s education.

Meanwhile, in the relationship between the aunts and their nephews and nieces, without exception the children call their aunt “mum,” and it is clear that a deeply intimate relationship has been built between them (type 2 and type 3). In the case of Bao, his aunt did not hesitate to take her nephew home and raise him like her daughters. And Dam’s parents-in-law seem to be happy with Bao, probably because Dam and her husband have no son of their own. Nhi’s aunt Muoi loves her so much that sometimes her own children complain, “Mom loves Nhi most.” Muoi feels sorry for Nhi and feels that only she can protect her.

On the whole, the foster parents actively participate in the everyday care and education of their grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Ngoc Dinh’s grandparents and Nhi’s aunt want to expose the children to greater opportunities and improve their prospects for the future. For example, Muoi took Nhi to KOCUN’s Korean classes every weekend after KOCUN staff visited Nhi, enthusiastically encouraged her to study Korean, and provided financial assistance. In rural situations, which are far removed from the foreign cultures of the parents, it seems that foster parents feel responsible for improving the children’s prospects, including linking them with their foreign roots (e.g., helping Nhi learn Korean). In addition, in place of the absent mothers, they visit the judicial branch of Hau Giang Province once every three or six months to renew the children’s residency status while renewing their visa. The foster parents also have the responsibility of securing the children’s right to reside by submitting “temporary registrations” to the local government.

The children say that they want to continue living with their grandmothers or aunts because they regard their homes as their own. Most of them moved to Vietnam during infancy (sometimes in the mother’s womb) and have grown up in their foster parents’ home. Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding them have sometimes changed dramatically, such as the remarriage of their mothers who are living separately. Because of these changing circumstances and an uncertain future, the children adopt the important survival strategy of strengthening their relationships with unmarried uncles, aunts, and cousins in their foster families.

Finally, how are the absent mothers involved? Generally, whether living in a foreign country or in a large city, they try to maintain an intimate relationship with their children by talking daily over the Internet. Most of the absent mothers assume that the separation from their children and care by their relatives are temporary and that they will live with their children again once conditions are favorable. Therefore, some mothers think they do not need to send the formal documents necessary for school enrollment, such as birth certificate. In addition, as in the cases of Nhi and Bao, the remarriage of the mothers can complicate the domestic environment and make it difficult to integrate return-migrant children into their new families. Therefore, the long-term stay of the children in rural Vietnam is due largely to the changing circumstances of the absent mothers.

V Conclusion

My investigation shows that Vietnamese families in the Mekong Delta are not rigid structures but flexible circles that openly extend their kin networks across the border. They are willing to be flexible in care relations. Common to the three types of household described above is the prevalence of “relatedness,” in which multiethnic children are growing up through the everyday practice of living with their maternal relatives away from their biological parents.

In this study I have sought to elucidate the life experiences of return-migrant children who live apart from their mothers, and their relationship with their absent mothers and maternal relatives. In particular, I have attempted to highlight the role of maternal relatives (mainly grandparents or aunts) taking the place of absent mothers in providing care to children experiencing cross-household migration.

I have identified the situation of the main members in transnational families as follows:

• Mothers live separately from their children mainly due to economic difficulties. Most of them are factory workers who are busy working all day and do not receive enough social welfare. They send regular remittances to their relatives whom they entrust with childcare.

• Children return to Vietnam when they are quite young, sometimes even while in their mother’s womb. They attend local schools when they reach school age, but the plan is for them to return eventually to their father’s countries.

• The foster parents, who are in their mid-40s to 60s, are more experienced socially and in parenting than the absent mothers. They seem to be trying to create the best conditions for their foster children and to be actively involved in their future education.

In summing up the plural care relations among the children, absent mothers, and maternal relatives, some features can be observed.

First, the relationship between the multiethnic children and their foster parents: The children are raised in a wide and flexible family circle as members of the maternal family. In the southern part of Vietnam, it is common for maternal grandparents to take care of their grandchildren in place of absent mothers, and this custom prevails even in the case of cross-border marriage and divorce. Basically, foster parents are awarded custody guardianship based on two domains: (1) practical domain: living together with the children and providing care and safety, and (2) legal domain: guaranteeing a temporary residence, enrolling the children in local schools, and applying for visa renewal at the Hau Giang Provincial Justice Bureau every three or six months. In these aspects they genuinely care about the well-being of the children and voluntarily contribute toward child custody although they have no legal obligation. Most foster parents have a strong attachment to the children and take responsibility for them so that they continuously guarantee custody.

Second, the relationship between foster parents and absent mothers: Grandparents and aunts stand in as a substitute for the children’s parents in exchange for financial support from the mothers. This exchange is not merely a payment for services but also a form of division of labor among family members (e.g., between parents and daughters or between sisters). In addition, maternal relatives are deeply involved in broader “childcare,” including pregnancy and childbirth, as seen in the case of Huyn’s grandparents. The purpose of the remittances is clearly not to provide mainstay support, but rather to affirm membership in a family circle and its continuity. In other words, the children’s return migration promotes the feeling of mutual aid and cooperation among transnational family members. In addition, there are cases in which the paternal grandparents in foreign countries are too old, are too ill, or live too far away to look after their grandchildren.

Third, the relationship between the children and their absent mothers: As shown through concrete cases, mothers who live apart from their children find it extremely difficult to take care of their children and educate them. However, they miss sharing directly in their children’s school experiences. They see their children only when they return to their home of origin, perhaps once a year. Otherwise, based on the mothers’ schedules, they set up a chat time with their children, such as “every day, 30 minutes after dinner,” via VoIP phone calls.

As de jure guardians, the biological parents or divorced mothers are obliged to advocate for the best interests of their children. Responsibility for legal proceedings rests with the mothers. However, the mothers are de facto not able to fulfill their duties and make all decisions regarding their child’s welfare and interests since they live far away and are not always in touch with the children. Consequently, they are heavily dependent on their relatives back home. Without a flexible family relationship that transnationally supports mutual aid, global care relations cannot be established. In other words, it is important to understand the difference between physical and legal custody, as well as the two types of mothers: practical and biological.

Accepted: June 4, 2020


This work was supported by Institute of Developing Economies IDE-JETRO under Grant # FY2016/2018 Research Topic C-06: Dynamics and Transformation of the Vietnamese Family in the Doi Moi Era.


Carsten, Janet. 2000. Introduction: Cultures of Relatedness. In Culture of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship, edited by Janet Carsten, pp. 1–36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Constable, Nicole, ed. 2005. Cross-border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cửu Long. 2016. Nhiều cô dâu miền tây tháo chạy khỏi chồng ngoại [Many brides of Mekong delta origin run away from foreign husbands]. VN Express. October 4., accessed November 15, 2017.

Gilligan, Carol. 2003. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hayami Yoko 速水洋子. 2019. Tonan Ajia ni okeru kea no senzairyoku: Sei no tsunagari no jissen 東南アジアにおけるケアの潜在力―生のつながりの実践 [Potentialities of care in Southeast Asia: Practice of life’s connectivities]. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press.

―. 2012. Introduction: The Family in Flux in Southeast Asia. In The Family in Flux in Southeast Asia: Institution, Ideology, Practice, edited by Hayami Yoko, Koizumi Junko, Chalidaporn Songsamphan, and Ratana Tosakul, pp. 1–26. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press; Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Hickey, Gerald C. 1964. Village in Vietnam. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hoài Thanh. 2016. Chuyện ‘học gửi’ của những đứa con lai [Stories about “audit study” of some mixed-race children]. Vietnamnet. October 7., accessed October 20, 2017.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2000. Global Care Chains and Emotional Surplus Value. In On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism, edited by Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens, pp. 130–146. London: Vintage.

Hugo, Graeme; and Nguyen Thi Hong Xoan. 2007. Marriage Migration between Vietnam and Taiwan: A View from Vietnam. In Watering the Neighbour’s Garden: The Growing Demographic Female Deficit in Asia, edited by Isabelle Attané and Christophe Z. Guilmoto, pp. 365–391. Paris: Committee for International Cooperation in National Research in Demography.

Ishii Sari K. 2016. Child Return Migration from Japan to Thailand. In Marriage Migration in Asia: Emerging Minorities at the Frontiers of Nation-States, edited by Ishii Sari K., pp. 118–134. Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press.

Iwai Misaki. 2013. Global Householding between Rural Vietnam and Taiwan. In Dynamics of Marriage Migration in Asia, edited by Ishii Kayoko, pp. 139–162. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Kiso Keiko 木曽恵子. 2019. Kea no ninaite no fukusuusei to sumatofon ni yoru oyakokankei no hokan: Syoushika jidai no Tohoku Tai nouson ni okeru kosodate ケアの担い手の複数性とスマートフォンによる親子関係の補完―少子化時代の東北タイ農村における子育て [Multiple caregivers and complementing parent-child relationship with smartphones: Child-rearing in northeastern rural Thailand in the era of declining birthrate]. In Tonan Ajia ni okeru kea no senzairyoku: Sei no tsunagari no jissen 東南アジアにおけるケアの潜在力―生のつながりの実践 [Potentialities of care in Southeast Asia: Practice of life’s connectivities], edited by Hayami Yoko 速水洋子, pp. 353–377. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press.

―. 2012. Women’s Labor Migration and “Multiple Mothering” in Northeast Thailand. In The Family in Flux in Southeast Asia: Institution, Ideology, Practice, edited by Hayami Yoko, Koizumi Junko, Chalidaporn Songsamphan, and Ratana Tosakul, pp. 463–482. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press; Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Lam, Theodora; and Yeoh, Brenda S. A. 2019. Parental Migration and Disruptions in Everyday Life: Reactions of Left-Behind Children in Southeast Asia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45(16): 3085–3104.

Le Hien Anh. 2016. Lives of Mixed Vietnamese-Korean Children in Vietnam. In Marriage Migration in Asia: Emerging Minorities at the Frontiers of Nation-States, edited by Ishii Sari K., pp. 175–186. Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press.

Lê Thị Nhâm Tuyết. 1975. Phụ Nữ Việt Nam qua các thời đại [Vietnamese women through the ages]. Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản khoa học xã hội.

Lu, Melody Chia-Wen; and Yang Wen-Shan. 2010. Introduction. In Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration: Demographic Patterns and Social Issues, edited by Yang Wen-Shan and Melody Chia-Wen Lu, pp. 15–29. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Nagasaka Itaru 長坂格. 2009. Kokkyo o koeru Fuiripin murabito no minzokushi: Toransunashonarizumu no jinruigaku 国境を越えるフィリピン村人の民族誌―トランスナショナリズムの人類学 [Ethnography of Filipino villagers crossing the borders: The anthropology of transnationalism]. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

―. 1998. Kinship Networks and Child Fostering in Labor Migration from Ilocos, Philippines to Italy. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 7(1): 67–92.

Ngô Thị Vân Phượng. 2018. Giới thiệu tình hình tư vấn và các trường hợp cụ thể tại KOCUN Cần Thơ [Introduction in consulting situation and particular cases in KOCUN, Can Tho city]. Paper presented at the conference “Hội thảo thực trạng và giải pháp hỗ trợ phụ nữ hồi hương và trẻ em Việt-Hàn cư trú tại Việt Nam” [Conference on the situation and solutions to support returning women and Vietnamese-Korean children who are living in Vietnam], January 25, Can Tho city, pp. 110–124. Cần Thơ: KOCUN.

Ngọc Tài. 2016. Chuyện học ‘gửi’ ở làng ngoại kiều [Stories of “audit learning” related to cross-border marriages in some villages]. Tuổi Trẻ. December 1., accessed October 10, 2017.

Nguyen Xoan; and Tran Xuyen. 2010. Vietnamese-Taiwanese Marriages. In Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration: Demographic Patterns and Social Issues, edited by Yang Wen-Shan and Melody Chia-Wen Lu, pp. 157–178. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Ogaya Chiho 小ヶ谷千穂. 2016. Ido o ikiru: Fuiripin ijyu jyosei to fukusu no mobiritei 移動を生きる―フィリピン移住女性と複数のモビリティ [Living in motion: Filipino migrant women and their multiple mobilities]. Tokyo: Yushindo.

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. 2005. Children of Global Migration: Transnational Families and Gendered Woes. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

―. 2001. Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Pham Van Bich. 1999. The Vietnamese Family in Change: The Case of the Red River Delta. Surrey: Curzon.

Phạm Văn Bích; and Iwai Misaki. 2014a. Cô dâu Việt Nam thành công ở Đài Loan: Hai nghiên cứu trường hợp [Successful Vietnamese brides in Taiwan: Two case studies]. Nghiên cứu gia đình và giới [Journal of family and gender studies] 24(1): 43–53.

―. 2014b. Cô dâu Việt Nam thành công ở Đài Loan: Hai nghiên cứu trường hợp [Successful Vietnamese brides in Taiwan: Two case studies]. Nghiên cứu gia đình và giới [Journal of family and gender studies] 24(2): 28–43.

Phan An; Phan Quang Thịnh; and Nguyễn Quới. 2005. Hiện tượng phụ nữ Việt Nam lấy chồng Đài Loan [Phenomenon of Vietnamese women married to Taiwanese husbands]. Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh: Nhà xuất bản trẻ.

Rambo, A. Terry. 2005. Searching for Vietnam: Selected Writings on Vietnamese Culture and Society. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press; Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Sato Nao. 2012. Mutual Assistance through Children’s Interhousehold Mobility in Rural Cambodia. In The Family in Flux in Southeast Asia: Institution, Ideology, Practice, edited by Hayami Yoko, Koizumi Junko, Chalidaporn Songsamphan, and Ratana Tosakul, pp. 339–364. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press; Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

UBND xã Vị Thắng [People’s Committee of Vi Thang Commune]. 2017. Báo cáo tình hình thực hiện công tác bình đẳng giới và hôn nhân gia đình trên địa bàn xã Vị Thắng [Vi Thang commune people’s report on the implementation of gender equality and marital and family issues at Vi Thang commune]. Unpublished annual report.

Văn Vĩnh. 2016. Hỗ trợ cô dâu Việt và con lai hồi hương [Supporting Vietnamese brides and their mixed-race children who returned home]. Công An Việt Nam. October 28., accessed October 10, 2017.

1) There were 16 internationally married women whose children returned to Vietnam. Of the 16 mothers, five lived with their children in a home commune, two were divorced or separated, and three women continued in a marital relationship but stayed in Vietnam (two of them stayed temporarily to give birth and returned to Korea with their children by December 2017).

2) The grandmother worked for a few months at an automobile factory, but she was caught by the police and deported. As her penalty, she would not be allowed into Korea again for five years.

3) The commune government totaled the number of children whose relatives applied for the children’s temporary resident registration status in accordance with the security rules.

4) Of the seven children who lived with their mothers, four cases involved two sisters married to Taiwanese and Korean men.

5) The survey revealed that the data collected by the commune government did not include one of the two Vietnamese-Korean children with Vietnamese nationality.

6) KOCUN is a South Korean NGO responsible for supporting divorced or separated women and their children. In Can Tho city, Korean and Vietnamese full-time staff advise divorced and separated women and provide support for their vocational training as well as their multiethnic children’s legal issues (Ngô Thị Vân Phượng 2018, 110–113).


Vol. 10, No. 1, Jely A. Galang


Contents>> Vol. 10, No. 1

Chinese Laborers on a Mining Frontier: The Case of Copper Miners in Northern Luzon, 1856–98

Jely A. Galang*

*Department of History, University of the Philippines Diliman, Pavilion 2, Palma Hall, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City 1101, Philippines
e-mail: jagalang[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.10.1_3

This paper focuses on the lives and circumstances of Chinese laborers in the copper mines of Lepanto in Northern Luzon from 1856 until the American occupation of the Philippines in 1898. While Filipino laborers were also employed by the Spanish Cantabro-Filipina Company, Chinese laborers were preferred when it came to opening up and exploiting large areas in the “mineral belt” of Luzon. This preference was due mainly to Chinese workers’ mining skills and the availability of inexpensive Chinese labor contracted to open up resource frontiers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In addition to these factors, the hazardous nature of mining and the Spaniards’ negative stereotypical view of Chinese as dangerous albeit “necessary outsiders” made the latter the most suitable labor force for mining. The conditions in the mines, and the abuses committed against the Chinese laborers, caused many workers to run away.

This paper has two parts. The first part discusses the importance of Chinese labor in Philippine mining prior to the nineteenth century. It demonstrates how the Spaniards preferred to employ Chinese labor as Filipinos were viewed to lack the skills and enterprise necessary to exploit the colony’s mineral resources. The second part focuses on Chinese laborers in the Lepanto copper mines in the midnineteenth century. It describes and analyzes the laborers’ working and living conditions in relation to the prevailing labor hierarchy and system of management implemented by the Cantabro-Filipina Company. It also describes the limited interactions between Chinese laborers and non-Chinese employees in the mines.

Keywords: Chinese laborers, Lepanto, copper mines, Philippine history, Northern Luzon, mining industry


Tanso is the Tagalog word for copper.1) It is derived from the Hokkien word for “copper wire” (Ang See et al. 2005, 220). The “borrowing” of the term demonstrates an aspect of longtime cultural interactions and commercial exchanges between Filipinos and the Chinese of Southern China (Manuel 1948). The word tanso also serves as evidence of Chinese labor’s important role in the development of the Philippine mining industry, particularly copper mining. During the nineteenth century, Chinese laborers formed the backbone of the labor force that exploited the copper mines of Lepanto in northern Luzon.2) These laborers were instrumental in all the aboveground and subterranean works and activities involved in the extraction of the metal.

Despite the significant role that Chinese workers played in the colonial mining industry, written works about them are relatively scarce. Salvador Lopez’s (1992) “definitive history of mining in the Philippines,” for example, mentions how the Spanish colonial government and private businessmen deemed it necessary to hire Chinese miners from the 1780s to the 1890s. Lopez’s discussion on these laborers, however, is only tangential to his primary purpose, which is to highlight “the role of [the natives (i.e. Filipinos), and] native technology in the [mining] industry” (Lopez 1992, 8). Similarly, Onofre Corpuz’s (1997) classic work on Philippine economic history only briefly mentions Chinese miners, as the book’s main goal is to elaborate on the Bourbon economic reforms initiated in the late eighteenth century. Edgar Wickberg (2000) mentions mining as an industry that employed Chinese workers, but only in relation to his discussion on why and how the second half of the nineteenth century opened up new economic opportunities for Chinese in the colony.

There are a number of articles that mention Chinese miners, but like the abovementioned works, their discussions are peripheral to the authors’ main subject matter. Maria Lourdes Diaz-Trechuelo (1965) and Salvador Escoto (1998) provide details on Chinese laborers in the mining industry, but their focus is on the general economic condition of the islands in the 1780s and the economic projects spearheaded by some pioneer Spanish industrialists during the period. Lastly, in her articles on the history of gold mining in Benguet, Olivia Habana (2000; 2001) underlines the industry’s economic, social, and political effects on the lives of the Igorots in the Cordilleras. These works, therefore, expose a historiographical lacuna, which the present paper endeavors to fill in.

Using previously unexplored and underutilized primary materials from various Philippine and Spanish archives and libraries, this paper presents a narrative on the lives and circumstances of Chinese laborers in the copper mines of Lepanto from 1856 until the American occupation of the Philippines in 1898.3) While Filipino laborers, such as Ilocanos,4) Igorots,5) and Tinguians,6) were also employed by the Spanish company Sociedad Minero-Metalurgica Cantabro-Filipina de Mancayan (the Cantabro-Filipina Company), which was considered “the most successful of all other mining speculations undertaken on a large scale in [the] colony” (Foreman 1899, 386), Chinese laborers were preferred when it came to opening up and exploiting large areas in the “mineral belt” of Luzon (US Bureau of the Census 1905, 82).7) This preference was due mainly to Chinese workers’ mining skills, and the availability of inexpensive Chinese labor contracted to open up resource frontiers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere (McKeown 2011, 62–83). In addition to these factors, I argue that the hazardous nature of mining and the Spaniards’ negative stereotypical view of Chinese as “dangerous” albeit “necessary outsiders” made the latter the most suitable labor force for mining. The shocking conditions in the mines, and the abuses committed against the Chinese laborers, caused many workers to run away.

This paper has two main parts. The first part briefly discusses the importance of Chinese labor in Philippine mining prior to the nineteenth century. It demonstrates how the Spaniards, specifically private businessmen and adventurers, preferred to employ Chinese labor as Filipinos were viewed to lack the skills and enterprise necessary to exploit the colony’s mineral resources. The second part focuses on Chinese laborers in the Lepanto copper mines between 1856 and 1898. It describes and analyzes the laborers’ working and living conditions in relation to the prevailing labor hierarchy and system of management implemented by the Cantabro-Filipina Company. It also describes the limited interactions between Chinese laborers and non-Chinese employees (Spaniards and Filipinos) in the mines.

The Philippine Mining Frontier and Chinese Labor

The Philippines has abundant mineral resources. Since the beginning of Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, reports from the colony were sent to Madrid detailing the types of minerals and their locations on the islands (Letter from Andres de Mirandola [1574] 1903–7, 223–224; de Sande [1576] 1903–7, 54). The Spaniards soon learned that Filipinos had some knowledge of mining and refining metals but the amount they produced was small compared to what could actually be obtained (Filipinas 881).8) Notwithstanding this observation, and the desire of some Spanish officials to improve what they considered the miserable state of mining in the Philippines, the colony in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continued to depend on metal imports from China (Reid 2011, 21–22).9) Chinese traders brought into the islands large quantities of “metal basins, copper kettles and other copper and cast-iron pots; quantities of all sorts of nails, sheet-iron, tin and saltpetre, and gun-powder” (de Morga 1903–7, 179).

It was only in the middle of the eighteenth century, spurred by the Bourbon Reforms in Spain, that serious initiatives were undertaken to open up the Philippines’ mining frontier. With financial means and motivation, under the auspices of the colonial government, some Spanish industrialists initiated the exploration and extraction of natural resources such as timber and minerals in several mountainous regions of Luzon and Visayas (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 763–800). One of these pioneer industrialists in search of financial windfalls10) was Francisco Xavier Salgado, who invested in a number of mining ventures. Through Salgado’s unwavering efforts and adventurous spirit, three iron mines were opened during this period: Mambulao in Camarines, Santa Ines in Tondo, and Angat in Bulacan (Escoto 1998, 273–292).

Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers were absolutely crucial in the working of all these iron mines. The 1753 reopening of the Mambulao mines11) began when Salgado and the Augustinian Recollect Fray Sebastian de San Vicente went to Camarines with 16 Chinese: two master founders and 14 skilled carpenters, smiths, and colliers (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 766, 768). After clearing Angat’s forested area, the Chinese laborers carried out the mining and smelting of iron until 1781 (Centeno 1876, 39). Early in 1758, skilled artisans and more than three hundred unskilled laborers worked in the Santa Ines mines (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 771–772). By 1772 these mines still had about three hundred Chinese unskilled laborers in addition to 62 Chinese skilled artisans who worked as ironmasters, refinery experts, and ironsmiths (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 776).

The strong preference for Chinese labor was due primarily to their knowledge and skill in smelting and smithing (de Salazar [1590] 1903–7, 212–228). In addition, from the pragmatic standpoint of the colonial authorities, the Chinese laborers’ work ethic was commendable, particularly when compared to the Filipinos’. These qualities and attributes of the Chinese led Spanish industrialists to import labor directly from China. When occasional disruptions in the importation of Chinese labor occurred—for example, when Governor Pedro Manuel de Arandia expelled all pagan Chinese from the colony in December 1758 and temporarily restricted Chinese immigration—Spanish businessmen resorted to obtaining mine laborers from Parian in Manila, especially before the last Chinese expulsion in 1766 (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 774).12)

It is important to stress that despite their skills and work ethic, Chinese laborers were treated as a marginal group by the colonial authorities. Essentially, they were considered neither part of the colonizers nor part of the colonized (i.e., Filipinos). By virtue of their ethnic origins and affiliations and their socioeconomic status, Chinese laborers were situated at the bottom of the colonial social structure. In this case, in the mid-eighteenth century they could be compelled to work for whatever purpose their colonial masters deemed suitable. For example, some two hundred of them were coerced to labor in the Santa Ines mines in 1765. The government’s order to the soldiers was clear: “all the Sangley ironworkers should be seized and transported to the mines [italics added]” (de Viana 1903–7, 107). The risks involved in clearing forested areas and the hazards of actual mining were not considered seriously by the Spanish administrators as far as Chinese labor was concerned. In fact, it was the “unhealthy environment” in the Angat and Santa Ines mines that made Chinese laborers suitable for the difficult and dangerous job (Buzeta and Bravo 1850, Vol. 1, 22; Abella Casariego 1883, 7; Escoto 1998, 277).

Abuses were also committed against the Chinese miners, who had to work incessantly for long hours in order to obtain the amount of iron the Spanish capitalists expected. In the Santa Ines mines, workers in the foundries and refineries were forced to work day and night (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 776). Angat’s Chinese miners had to work without the benefit of machinery.13) The strenuous nature of mine work required sufficient food intake and nutrition. However, only a limited supply of food was provided for the laborers. In 1765 the Chinese laborers in Santa Ines were compelled to cultivate the area around the mines to augment the rations provided by the government (de Viana 1903–7, 107). The same directive was imposed also upon the Angat laborers (Centeno 1876, 39). The meager funds available to the colonial government were allocated primarily for the reconstruction of what was destroyed during the British invasion of Manila (1762–64) as well as to better equip the military force to cope with the increased Iranun raiding on the islands.

Due to the terrible labor conditions in the mines, it was common for Chinese laborers to flee. Hence, stricter controls were imposed on their movements and work. These stringent measures were deemed important when the act of running away was viewed within the context of the numerous Chinese revolts of the preceding period. While mine administrators were mostly civilians, managers on site had to be from the military. For example, a Spanish military official functioned as the manager of the mines and supervisor of the Chinese laborers at the Santa Ines mines. This official had at his disposal 25–30 soldiers who made sure the laborers followed the manager’s orders and carried out their work efficiently (de Viana 1903–7, 107–108).

Copper Mines in Northern Luzon

As in the earlier period, Chinese laborers were also employed in the copper mines of Lepanto in the nineteenth century. Copper as a “windfall” commodity (Webb 1964, 180, 182) in the mountainous frontier of Northern Luzon was first mentioned during Governor Simon de Anda’s administration (1770–76).14) However, no attempt was made to tap its potential until Governor Pascual Enrile (1830–35) tried to curb the circulation of counterfeit money called siping (US Bureau of the Census 1905, 84) by instructing Col. Guillermo Galvey to tackle the problem.15) Galvey was also tasked to be on the lookout for copper deposits (Scott 1974, 245). However, specific directives for exploring the mineral resources of the mountains between Cagayan and Ilocos were issued only on March 27, 1834. On January 1–18, 1835, assisted by Aide-de-Camp Jose Maria Peñaranda, Galvey undertook the search for copper (Centeno 1876, 41; Scott 1975a, 129)16) in the rancherías (Meyer 1975, 103)17) of Gambang, Lamagang, Ampan, and Apayao. These settlements were part of the 60 rancherías tributarias (tributary villages) under the jurisdiction of the Political and Military District of Lepanto (see Map 1) (Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 115).



Map 1 District of Lepanto


Galvey and Peñaranda not only discovered a “copper region of unquestioned value” (Early Franciscan Missions [1649 (1895)] 1903–7, 301), they also learned that the Igorots of these rancherías had been mining copper even before the Spanish colonization of the islands (Santos 1862, 19, 21; Centeno 1876, 43; de Lacalle 1886, 201). The mining engineer Antonio Hernandez, who was sent to the Cordilleras in 1850, learned on the spot how the Igorots mined and smelted ores. According to his report, the Igorots were knowledgeable in extracting and refining minerals such as copper and gold. To open a new mine site, the Igorots constructed pools of water in order to obtain a head of pressure adequate to reveal the mineral deposits, which they split by building fires against the rock. The ores were then roasted with fuel piled up around them. These roasted ores were melted down twice in crude furnaces so that a finer grade of metal could be acquired (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4).

The Igorots sold the half-worked ores in the lowland Christian towns of La Union and Ilocos. Artisans in these towns used the copper to make utensils and ingots illicitly used as currency (the counterfeit sipings). In most cases, these copper objects were also sold in Manila (Santos 1862, 19). However, from the standpoint of the Spaniards, the Igorots’ “rudimentary” mining and smelting techniques produced low-quality ore and poor amounts of copper. This deplorable situation, the authorities asserted, could be improved with the help of mining experts and the use of machinery (Santos 1862, 19–20).

On March 9, 1837, two years after the Galvey-Peñaranda expedition, the Inspeccion General de Minas was established to promote the mining industry in the Philippines (Santos 1862, 19). The bureau was tasked to undertake mineral and resource explorations in the archipelago, conduct geological surveys in potential mining areas, collect rock samples for investigation, and create an empirical data base for the development of the industry (Santos 1862, 19–21; Abella Casariego 1883, 14–15). The bureau was composed of a corps of engineers under the chief inspector, who was also an engineer (Abella Casariego 1883, 14). It was through the efforts of the bureau’s corps of engineers that systematic studies on the copper mines in Lepanto were undertaken. For example, the bureau reported that an estimated 189.78 quintales metricos (metric quintals) of copper could be procured from the mines annually.18) This meant that over 15 years (1840–55) the mines could produce approximately 2,846.70 quintales metricos of copper, which was equivalent to 117,000 pesos fuertes when sold in Manila (Santos 1862, 19).

The first comprehensive regulations on mining (Reglamentos de Minas) were introduced in 1846 through a decree issued by Governor Narciso Claveria (1844–49) (Centeno 1876, 41). In these regulations, the fundamental goals, the agencies, and the overall processes involved in mining the colony’s mineral resources were outlined in detail. The Reglamentos also set out the rights and responsibilities of the colonial state, contractors, miners, and laborers (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 350–357). Twenty years later, a more detailed mining policy was announced through the Mining Decree of May 14, 1867. As will be elaborated in the following sections, the 1867 Decree clarified certain provisions of the 1846 Regulations, particularly articles specifically about Chinese contract laborers (chinos contratados) (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 375–378), who comprised the majority of workers employed in the Lepanto copper mines.

The Cantabro-Filipina Company

Proposals for the systematic exploitation of the Lepanto mines were submitted to Manila two years after Hernandez’s 1850 expedition. On September 5, 1852, Antonio Perea, the military commandant of Cayan, the capital of Lepanto, made a proposal to Governor Antonio de Urbiztondo (1850–53) to exploit the mines in Mancayan. He intended to employ “families of poor but honest laborers” from Christian towns in Cayan and the surrounding pacified areas. The government would assist with the laborers’ resettlement by providing the necessary funds for their transportation, building their houses, and procuring draft animals as well as agricultural and mining tools. The initial expenses would amount to 5,000 to 6,000 pesos, but the expected annual yield for each mine (beneficio) was 10,000 pesos (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4). In 1854 the project was approved, and the funds came from the community chest (caja de comunidad) (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4, No. 1; Ultramar 435, Expediente 33), which Filipinos had been paying as a direct tax (contribucion directo) since the beginning of Spanish rule (Plehn 1901, 688–689).

The project began on April 30, 1854, as soon as the Mining Decree to start operations was issued (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4). However, the lack of Igorot labor willing to stay for long periods of time in the mines, and the lack of additional funds required, brought the state-sponsored operations to a halt. It was then that the Cantabro-Filipina Company, a private Spanish company, stepped in, obtained the mine claims, and continued the work that the colonial government had started.

The system for granting such mine claims began in the middle of the eighteenth century: all interested individuals, groups, or companies could submit proposals to the authorities in Manila. These proposals invariably specified the length of time the proponents intended to operate the mine, provisions on the conduct of operations—including the amount they would pay the government—as well as how to procure workers. Once the government selected the best proposal, which would further the government’s interests, the lease was granted (Diaz-Trechuelo 1965, 785–786).19)

The Cantabro-Filipina Company began its operations on March 26, 1856, after Venancio Balbas was allowed, through an agreement between him and the Igorot chiefs of the area, to explore the Santa Barbara mine in Magamban, Mancayan (Santos 1862, 20; Scott 1975a, 129, 135). Despite Balbas’s pioneering efforts to exploit the mines, no copper was produced in the early years of operations. In order to find out what was wrong, a special commission, led by Jose Maria Santos, chief engineer of the Bureau of Mines, was sent to Lepanto in October 1859 (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4). After making his investigations, on November 30, 1861 Santos submitted his “Informe sobre las minas de cobre de las rancherías de Mancayan, Suyuk, Bumucun y Agbao en el Distrito de Lepanto, isla de Luzon de las Filipinas” (Report on the copper mines in the villages of Mancayan, Suyuk, Bumucun, and Agbao in Lepanto District, Luzon island) to the governor-general (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4). The report contained, among other things, important recommendations for salvaging the future of the mines. One of these recommendations was to create a well-structured administration to preside over every aspect of mining operations, from generating funds to employing labor and selling the ore yields (Santos 1862, 64–71). This new administration was created on April 1, 1862 (Minas de cobre del Distrito de Lepanto (Filipinas) 1862; Reglamento interior para la mejor administración de la sociedad Española, Minero-Metalúrgica Cantabro-Filipina de Mancayan 1862).

Through the capable leadership of Santos and the efforts of the company officials, copper production in the 10 mines of Lepanto gradually increased after 1862 until the peak year of 1870 (Santos 1862, 3–7; see also Scott 1974, 247; 1975a, 104). Table 1 depicts the annual copper production of the Cantabro-Filipina Company in the decade between 1864 and 1874 as reported by Don Jose Centeno y Garcia, chief of the First Corps of Mining Engineers (Jefe de Primera [Administración] del Cuerpo de Ingenieros de Minas). It was only after 1867, more than a decade after full-scale operations began, that the company was able to extract fine copper (cobre fino) from the cruder yields of black copper (cobre negro).


Table 1 Copper Production in the Lepanto Mines, 1864–74



Recruitment and Employment of Chinese Laborers

The increase in copper production was enabled also by employing more Chinese laborers in addition to those initially hired by Venancio Balbas. According to Santos, who later became the leader of the enterprise seconded to the company from the government (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4), it was advantageous to hire Chinese laborers as they proved “to be knowledgeable and worked well” (Santos 1862, 34). The Chinese miners were instrumental in improving the “imperfect and inefficient means employed by the savages” (Santos 1862, 19–20). These young and able-bodied men also consistently augmented the small number of Igorots who wanted to be employed in the mine works (US Bureau of the Census 1905, 83).

In July 1856, preparatory work at the Lepanto mines began with the arrival of 120 contracted Chinese laborers (Scott 1975a, 104). Ten months later, another 156 Chinese arrived and were sent straight to the mines (Ultramar 436, Expediente 4). In 1861 it was reported that the mines had only 140 Chinese laborers (Santos 1862, 60). This number had increased to more than 600 by 1869 (Scott 1975b, 27) and then dropped to 400 by 1870 (Scott 1975a, 104). During the 1875–76 registration (empadronamiento), there were only 87 Chinese registered in Lepanto, described as “mineros y agricultores” (miners and agriculturists) (de Gracia 1877, 89). The number of Chinese laborers in the mines was dependent upon fluctuations in the price of ore and the amounts of copper produced, the lack of Filipino laborers from the area, the availability of unemployed Chinese mine labor, and the amount of work required. For example, in 1870–71, when copper production was high, an additional 91 Chinese laborers were contracted to work in the mines (Cuentas, SDS 18500). After 1874 their number declined as the company faced serious financial challenges due to the plummeting world price of copper, the prohibitive transportation costs linked to the mines, and the increasing outlays for fuel (Perez 1902, 132; Scott 1975a, 105).

The dialect group affiliation of the Chinese laborers is difficult to ascertain. The archival sources do not indicate whether the laborers were Hokkien (from southern Fujian) or Cantonese (from Guangdong), the two principal Chinese communities in the Philippines. Chinos and sangleyes were the common Spanish terms used in official reports and correspondence. Despite this limitation, it can be inferred that while the majority of Chinese who came to the islands were Hokkien, it seems that Cantonese called macanistas were the preferred laborers for the Lepanto mines. For example, the 156 Chinese laborers imported in 1857 were all indentured in Macao (Ultramar 436, Expediente 4). Furthermore, the surnames of the 91 laborers employed in 1871 were all Cantonese (Cuentas, SDS 18500).20) One reason for this preference for Cantonese was that certain trades and occupations were dominated by particular speech-dialect groups. In addition to cooking, leatherwork, carpentry, and cabinetmaking, mining was also an industry where macanistas had a specialization (de Comenge 1894, 48; see also Wickberg 2000, 177). The arrival of these Cantonese miners began after 1852, when Macao became the redistributive center of the coolie trade in China (Yen 1985, 52–53).

The recruitment of Chinese labor for the Lepanto mines followed the general pattern of the global coolie traffic during the second half of the nineteenth century.21) Under the auspices of the “coolie agency system,” young men from South China were signed up for manual work overseas by unscrupulous agents or brokers (khetaus), who commonly employed debt trapping, opium drugging, and armed kidnapping to obtain laborers. The fresh Chinese laborers would then be held in barracoons while waiting for foreign agents to negotiate their contracts with the khetaus. After the negotiations, the indentured laborers would leave China on ships registered to Western nations (Yen 1985, 36–39, 55). Chinese laborers sent to work at the Lepanto mines were transported to the Philippines with batches of other Chinese bound for plantation work in Cuba, Peru, and other colonies in the Caribbean and Spanish America (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 11, 186; Meagher 2008; see also Hu-DeHart 1994, 38–54). In 1857, for example, the Spanish ship Asuncion commanded by Capt. Severo de Arritola brought Chinese mine laborers to the port of Santiago, Ilocos Sur, while bound for Cuba with more Chinese coolies who were being transported to Havana. The Cantonese laborers had been contracted in Macao by Don Tomas Balbas y Castro, the first company administrator of the Lepanto mines, through his agent Don Mariano del Pielago (Ultramar 436, Expediente 4).

It was also possible for company agents to negotiate with Chinese or Chinese mestizo cabecillas (employers) in Manila instead of going directly to China, as cabecillas also had labor gangs under their jurisdiction. However, if a cabecilla had only a limited number of laborers, the agent would seek help from the gobernadorcillo de sangleyes. The latter could provide additional labor from among newly arrived migrants who did not have a cabecilla to take them in, who were temporarily lodged at the Casa Tribunal de Sangleyes in Binondo (de Comenge 1894, 32, 35–36; de Viana 2001, 148–149).

The length of service and salary of laborers specified in the contract were negotiated between the company agent and the khetaus in China, or the cabecillas in Manila. Chinese laborers for the Lepanto mines, like the coolies destined for Cuba, were issued contracts before their embarkation from Macao or Amoy. The length of service was normally between one and three years, which could be renewed based on the company’s need and laborer’s performance (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4).22) The laborer’s salary was determined by the company. In 1861 a laborer received an annual salary of 36 pesos. In addition, he received 15.43 pesos yearly for his food supply (Santos 1862, 60). In 1871 the annual salary was 10 pesetas, which was given every four months (tercio): in January, May, and September (Cuentas, SDS 18500). The laborer’s entire salary for the first year of employment was transferred by the company agent to the khetau or the cabecilla, who would deduct all debts incurred by the laborer before going to the mines. A laborer’s debts normally included his travel expenses and entry taxes coming into the Philippines, food and lodging at the cabecilla’s house or shop-cum-dormitory, and other basic necessities while the laborer was still in Manila. The laborer also received a certain amount from his cabecilla before traveling to the mines, as he had to purchase his provisions (except food) from the company’s store (Santos 1862, 60; Wickberg 2000, 111–112).

If the contract was signed in China, it was the responsibility of the company agent to prepare all necessary documents for the coolie’s travel to the Philippines. The agent would submit these documents to Spain’s diplomatic legations in Amoy and Macao. The Spanish consul general would grant travel permits to the laborers and send a dispatch to the Philippines, informing the governor general about the impending arrival of the laborers and the vessel that was transporting them (Ultramar 436, Expediente 4; see also Chinos [Manila, 1893–1894], SDS 13048, S 124).

In the case of laborers coming from Manila, it was the gobernadorcillo de sangleyes that requested the governor of the city of Manila to issue the men’s licenses to travel and take up temporary residence in Lepanto. The gobernadorcillo, with an endorsement from the cabecilla, had to vouch that the laborers were law-abiding, paid their contributions on time, and had no criminal records (Ultramar 5203, Expediente 4, No. 13; see also Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376). For its part, the company had to pay each laborer’s capitacion (poll tax) for the entire year before travel and residence permits were granted. A general list of the laborers, including their respective travel and residence documents, was handed over by the company to the provincial governor, who in the case of Lepanto was the politico-military commander of the district. The list was absolutely necessary in order for the provincial government and treasury to track down the number of Chinese laborers required to pay their poll tax and falla (redemption fee) after one year of working in the mines (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376).

After all the necessary travel documents were obtained, the trip to the mines would begin. The trek to the mountains, which normally lasted two to three days, would begin in a southeasterly direction from Candon, Ilocos Sur. The travellers had to cross “several rivers and use some badly constructed and rugged roads” (Santos 1862, 25–26). Walking was considered the most suitable means of reaching the mines, as riding a horse or being carried on a hammock lifted by native porters was considered dangerous and annoying (Santos 1862, 25–26). Loads were carried by porters (cargadores) from Cayan to Mancayan for 2 reales and 10 cuartos per piece (de Gracia 1877, 59). Horses and buffalo were available, but these animals were used only for transporting machinery and carts loaded with rocks and copper ores (Santos 1862, 61). It was only in the latter part of the 1870s that road construction was undertaken through the efforts of the company. Caution had to be observed, especially when traversing unpacified territories, as “the mountains possessed a hostile and suspicious nature” (Centeno 1876, 41). This character portrayal of the mountains signified not only the geophysical events that could occur but, more important, the possibility of planned attacks by Igorots, who had resisted Spanish encroachment into their territories for more than three centuries.

Working Conditions

Mine work was generally determined by the locations where the Chinese laborers had to work. Exterior work (obras esteriores) referred to activities outside the tunnels. During the early months of opening up an area for mining, Chinese laborers (barreteros) had to clear the forests to make the area habitable. They used hand axes to cut down the sturdy oaks, pines, narra, cedar, molave, and camagong that abounded (Santos 1862, 20–21, 26–27, 34; Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 117; de Gracia 1877, 45–46; Scott 1975a, 104). As time was often of the essence, they cleared forests day and night (see de Comenge 1894, 41). After this initial phase, the Chinese had to build and maintain a number of structures, such as the company’s administrative offices, firewood stores, various shops, a powder magazine, a rice warehouse and bodega, and kilns for making bricks for the furnaces. They also had to construct their own barracks within the confines of the mining compound (Santos 1862, 20–21, 44, 61; Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376; Scott 1975a, 104).

But the Chinese were hired primarily for the actual mining or related underground works (trabajos subterraneos) from 1856 until the end of the company’s full-scale operations in 1875 (Santos 1862, 21; Scott 1975a, 138). In 1859 Don Tomas Balbas y Castro reported that more than 1,580 metros lineales (linear meters) of tunnels had been explored by the Chinese. This underground work resulted in a yield of 146,000 arrobas23) of copper (Santos 1862, 6). Using crowbars, hammers, and chisels, Chinese barreteros chiseled away at the ore face. They also drilled holes and set explosive charges to dislodge the ore (Santos 1862, 44, 60, 61). They would then bring the ore to the tunnel entrances. Igorot women would mill and wash the ore before their men sorted and classified it (Santos 1862, 60; Scott 1975a, 104). In the 1880s, 15–20 Igorot women and some Chinese were usually employed to classify the ores (Perez 1902, 129). Smelting using Mexican smelters was also done by Chinese fundidores (foundry workers) (Santos 1862, 60; Scott 1975a, 104).

During the nineteenth century, kongsi associations were important in settling and developing the mining frontiers of rural Malaya, southern Siam, and western Borneo. Kongsis were a “form of open government based on an enlarged partnership and brotherhood” (Wang 1994, 4). Their main purposes were to protect the rights of their members, promote economic productivity among them, and resist outside powers that would abuse or mistreat them (Wang 1994). These institutions, however, did not develop in the Philippines, due to the Spanish administration’s ban on the establishment of such autonomous “states within the state” (Wickberg 2000, 24). Consequently, management of Chinese labor at the Lepanto mines was in the hands of the company’s Spanish administrators and Christian Filipino workers (most probably Ilocanos). The first Spanish officials from the Bureau of Mines assigned to supervise the mines were sent to Lepanto in the latter part of 1859 (Santos 1862, 3). Table 2 lists the personnel employed in the Lepanto copper mines two years later.


Table 2 Personnel Employed by the Cantabro-Filipina Company in the Lepanto Copper Mines, 1861



Taking into consideration the significant role of Chinese skilled labor in Philippine mining before the nineteenth century, as noted earlier, it is likely that most skilled labor (e.g., founders, blacksmiths) in Table 2 were Chinese even though only 140 underground workers and smelters were specifically identified as “Chinese.” Even Santos, who drafted the Informe (report) in 1861–62, including the table, categorically stated that Chinese skilled laborers were indispensable for operating the mines (Santos 1862, 21, 44). Whenever possible, therefore, Chinese skilled workers were employed. They were ranked higher in status in the labor hierarchy, and hence treated better, than the Chinese underground workers and smelters but were still considered lower down the scale than the Spanish administrators and Christian Filipino workers.

Chinese laborers worked in shifts, as mine labor—particularly in the foundries—had to be done around the clock. The copper mine zone was divided into two areas: the major mine site was located in Mancayan, and minor ones were in the area of Suyuc,24) Bumucun, Lupaac, and Agbao (Perez 1902, 132). More Chinese laborers worked in the Mancayan mines than in the latter mines. However, during the rainy season additional hands were deployed at the Suyuc mines as the neighboring Igorots of Suyuc had to tend their rice and camote crops (Perez 1902, 133, 138). Each group of laborers was supervised by a Spanish watchman (celador) during the day and two Filipino foremen (indios capataces de noche) at night. Both the laborers and foremen were under the supervision of a Spanish chief foreman who administered the underground works and the foundries (capataz mayor para minas y fundiciones).

A typical workday for laborers would start before daybreak with breakfast—mainly rice or root crops, a piece of meat, and vegetables—prepared in their assigned quarters. The rice usually came from the neighboring areas of Mancayan and Suyuc (Perez 1902, 124). However, rice was imported from Ilocos Sur when harvests were poor in the latter part of the nineteenth century due to unreliable weather and climate (Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 117). The Mining Decree of 1867 enjoined mine companies and administrators to establish a large chicken coop and slaughterhouse for reliable poultry and meat supplies, especially when the number of laborers exceeded one hundred, which was the case in the Lepanto copper mines. After breakfast the Chinese laborers, with their mining tools in hand, lined up in front of the administration office; there the foremen counted them, making note of any laborers who were sick or had absconded. Those who were ill were sent to the infirmary, where they were attended to by a surgical practitioner (practicante de cirugia) and given medicine. For minor accidents, first aid kits were readily available (Santos 1862, 60–61; Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376; Scott 1975a, 104). Those with more serious ailments and injuries were brought to either of the two infirmaries in Mancayan and Cayan (Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 116). However, if a sick person was found unfit for work, he would be sent back to Manila and a replacement would be sought at the company’s expense. On the other hand, laborers who fled were pursued by Igorot warriors assigned to capture these defiant absconders (Semper 1975, 27).

A brief mention of the salaries of Chinese laborers was made earlier. However, a more detailed discussion is necessary in order to compare what Chinese workers received in relation to non-Chinese workers. The heaviest, most physically demanding, and most dangerous work was assigned to non-Christian Chinese, Igorots, and Tinguians, who also received the lowest salaries among the company’s personnel. Commenting on their low salaries, Santos stated in 1861: “I do not think there is an establishment of the same kind with such modest wages” (Santos 1862, 34–35).25) In the same year, the 20 Tinguians hired as cart drivers and a shepherd each received 36 pesos annually, while every Igorot who worked as an ore classifier was paid an annual salary of 24 pesos. On the other hand, the Chinese and Igorot laborers received 36 pesos every year plus 15.43 pesos and 86.4 pesos respectively for their provisions (abastecer de viveres) (Santos 1862, 60). The laborers bought their food and other supplies from the company store, which was maintained by the warehouse keeper (encargado de tienda y raciones). As noted above, the food allowance was provided by the company but the laborers’ other living expenses had to come from their salaries. As was the case in other mining areas in Southeast Asia during the period under consideration, Chinese laborers were encouraged to buy staples from the company store on credit. Normally, their debts were deducted from their salaries before they received them.

By comparison, a Spanish watchman received 140 pesos annually while a Christian indio foreman received 96 pesos, which was more than double the salary of a Chinese or Igorot laborer (Santos 1862, 60). This difference in wages suggests that the company took religious affiliation and racial or ethnic identities and attributes into consideration when hiring employees. The crucial skills needed to operate the mines were obviously important, but the Spanish employees, who were at the top of the labor ladder, were not always as qualified as they were expected to be for the work. There were engineers who were hired despite their lack of training and experience. The agents of the Bureau of Mines, who conducted an inspection in the Lepanto mines, reported in 1863 that they saw “with sorrow great errors, which immediately [caught] the eye, committed by fraudulent [Spanish] engineers who, in intelligence and mining knowledge, lag behind those we unduly classify as savages” (Informe 1864, 12–13, cited in Scott 1974, 247).

Living Conditions

Chinese laborers built their own barracks adjacent to the mining area. They were not allowed to go outside their compound (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376). According to two Europeans who visited the mines in the 1870s, the company’s headquarters house (casa administración) was erected on a hill above the area where the Chinese barracks were located. Thus, it would be easier for the administrators to watch over and regulate the Chinese quarter (Reglamento interior . . . 1862, 30–31).26) Furthermore, two Spanish watchmen were specifically assigned to ensure that no Chinese violated the rule of remaining within their compound. Only those individuals who were sick and no longer capable of working were allowed to return to Manila. These indigent laborers, after getting an endorsement from their respective foremen and certification from the mine’s physician, had to also secure a permit from the administrator of the mine. Before the laborers went to work at dawn, roll call was taken by the foremen. Before returning to their barracks in the evening, they were accounted for again, to ascertain whether anyone had escaped or been injured in the mine. These numbers were included in the monthly report given to the provincial or district treasury (Reglamento interior . . . 1862, 23). This routine procedure was strictly enforced as the company had to pay a poll tax for every laborer on the list submitted to the treasury, although some laborers were no longer working in the mine due to illness or flight (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376).

Chinese laborers worked 25 days a month (Santos 1862, 35). The only break in their annual work routine was the celebration of Chinese New Year in January or February (Foreman 1899, 119). Sundays were reserved for religious observance of the Christian employees, and were deemed an opportune time to proselytize among the “heathen” Chinese, Igorots, and Tinguian laborers (Perez 1902, 134–135). The 1867 Mining Decree stipulated that when a mining site employed more than 250 families, a chaplain should be appointed in the area (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376). As early as 1861, the government had requested an Augustinian missionary for the mines—but it was only in October 1874, more than a decade later, that the Augustinian friar Marcelino Ceballos arrived on site. He stayed for just a few months (Scott 1974, 248). Aside from the Chinese, a small barrio of Ilocanos in the mining district also needed religious instruction (Perez 1902, 128). It was only in the late 1880s that the mission of Mancayan was established and permanently administered by the Agustinos Calzados (Font 1892, 105).

Sundays were also set aside for leisure activities, but since the Chinese laborers were confined to their compound, they were content to gamble and play cards and games of chance such as panguingue and monte, which was their favorite pastime (see de Comenge 1894, 169–170). They also drank a fermented wine called basi (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4),27) especially on occasions like Chinese New Year. They also smoked in order to cope with the cold of the mountainous areas, where the temperature could drop from 10 degrees Celsius to near freezing during the cold months between November and February (Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 116; Perez 1902, 68). Tobacco was readily available either through the contraband trade of the Igorots or supplied by the company (de Gracia 1877, 36). But it was opium that these laborers craved (see de Comenge 1894, 51; Bamero 2006, 63–64). Carl Trocki asserts that opium was an “ideal commodity” for Chinese laborers in colonial Southeast Asia:

Isolated in virtually all-male communities, they lacked most of the amenities of normal life: entertainment, families, women, and medicine. Opium filled these empty spaces, helping the laborers forget their loneliness and isolation, and easing the physical pain that accompanied long hours of heavy work in the tropical heat. In addition, it eliminated the symptoms of dysentery, malaria and other tropical fevers, which allowed them to keep working. . . . Thus, it was arguably in Southeast Asia, not in China itself, that opium use first took hold among lower-class Chinese, for as the British mass-produced opium in India, they found a mass consumer market among the Chinese laborers of Southeast Asia. (Trocki 2011, 89)

Dangerous Mines

Mine work was physically demanding, dangerous, and unhealthy. Chinese laborers had to utilize their brute strength to clear large tracts of forest in order for mining operations to be established and maintained. They had to cut down sturdy trees with axes and handsaws. In the process, they were exposed to the perennial problem of hostile attacks by tribal groups of the Cordilleras, who were described by Santos in stereotypical terms as “primitive,” “savages,” “cruel,” and “inhuman” (Santos 1862, 18, 20). The early Spanish explorers, and later the owners and administrators of the Cantabro-Filipina Company, were well aware of the headhunting expeditions of the Igorots, particularly the Ifugaos, between the 1830s and 1850s. In fact, when Governor Narciso Claveria went to assess the missionary work in the Cordilleras in April 1846, he found the conditions “grim indeed” (Scott 1974, 251, 248).

Below ground, inside the tunnels, Chinese laborers were also exposed to great dangers inhaling air lacking in oxygen and filled with metallic and non-metallic dust. A prolonged stay in the mines could damage the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses. Acrid smoke from candles and torches used inside the tunnels, as well as smoke from gunpowder used in blasting operations, added to the air pollution that affected the health of Chinese laborers (Santos 1862, 61). Mine cave-ins caused by earthquakes and the use of explosives regularly threatened the workers’ safety. Strong earthquakes occurred in Luzon in 1855 and again in 1866 (Sawyer 1900, 397–398). The violent and destructive earthquake of July 1880 hit Lepanto and Abra, leaving a trail of destruction (Los terremotos de Filipinas . . . 1880, 30; Centeno 1881, 16).

There were also deadly diseases that threatened the laborers, such as malaria and smallpox. For most Filipinos, the uplands were an avoidable place as the forests were considered to be full of fever, which was the main symptom of malaria (De Bevoise 1995, 142–143). The fevers normally became rampant “after the rains [in September and October], and in woody or marshy areas” (“An Englishman” 1903–7, 78). Giullaume Le Gentil in his travel account noted the impact of the weather on those engaged in mining in Luzon: “It is true that this sort of life shortens the days of these wretched people; as they are perpetually in water, they swell, and soon die” (quoted in “An Englishman” 1903–7, 78).

A smallpox epidemic broke out in Lepanto in 1875 (De Bevoise 1995, 118), and cholera was reported in Mancayan and Cayan in 1870 (Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 116). Illnesses and accidents were common in the mines, as evidenced by the company’s employment of a resident physician as well as personnel to administer the infirmaries in Mancayan and Cayan (Santos 1862, 60; Cavada y de Vigo 1876, 116).


Difficult workplace conditions were partly the reason why Chinese laborers were hired by the Cantabro-Filipina Company in the first place. While it was clear that the Chinese laborers were preferred for their skills, work ethic, and relatively low wages (see Santos 1862, 34), they were still relegated to the lowest stratum of the labor hierarchy in the mines. The Spanish attitude toward Chinese miners did not change significantly in the nineteenth century. Coercion and abuses were committed against them both in the eighteenth-century iron mines and in the nineteenth-century copper mines. The 1867 Mining Decree, for example, clearly stated that the Chinese were to be hired to work in unpopulated and unhealthy (mal sano) areas of the Philippines in order to develop the country’s mining industry. Local inhabitants could be hired, but only those who were living within the boundaries of the prospective mining area as they were familiar with the site and had already adapted to local climatic conditions (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376). Ironically, unlike the Tinguian and Igorot laborers, the Chinese, who did the most physically taxing and dangerous mine work, still had to adjust to their new environment with all its geophysical and epidemic disease-related threats.

Abuses against Chinese workers were not noted even in the Bureau of Mines reports in the early 1860s. Inspections were conducted on a regular basis, but their main objective was to check the condition of the mines and see how to improve the rate of extraction of copper ore. Little attention or regard was paid to the well-being of the Chinese laborers. Furthermore, the geographic distance between Lepanto and the capital, and the near inaccessibility of the mines, presented serious obstacles to the central colonial government, as well as to the gobernadorcillo de sangleyes and the Chinese principalia, to act against the unfavorable conditions.

In order to discern the extent of the abuses committed against Chinese in the mines, one has to read between the lines of the investigation reports. For example, one distinct feature of the Chinese miners’ lives was that they were confined within the mining area. As they might “contaminate” the native laborers, especially the Igorot women, they were not allowed to leave the mining site. Even on weekends, when they put their tools down, they were confined to their quarters or around the mining compound. While the 1846 Mining Regulations stipulated that mine owners and administrators had to treat their laborers in a “suitable manner” (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 354), it was possible that the company had the Chinese laborers work in a relentless manner, particularly during the four-year period between 1856 and 1860, when the mines were still struggling to produce a substantial amount of copper (see Scott 1975a, 104). Because of the hard labor conditions that they had to endure, some Chinese miners resorted to absconding. Those who had spent an adequate period of time in the mines and gained some local knowledge of the area tended to form groups and escape. Individuals who managed to evade the police forces under the jurisdiction of the Political and Military District of Lepanto would flee to the Christian lowland towns of Ilocos and La Union (de Gracia 1877, 37; von Drasche 1975, 42). However, when the German traveler Carl Semper made a trip to the mines in 1861, he learned that the escapes did not always have a happy ending:

Some subject Igorots brought one of these unfortunate chaps [runaway Chinese laborers] back the other day. He had had to till the soil under some unconquered Igorots for several months. They had taken all his clothes and cut his hair according to their style. This had changed his appearance so much that I could only recognize him as Chinese after a close look. (Semper 1975, 27)

Captured Chinese laborers were subjected to disciplinary measures such as cultivating local farms for months without any recompense. The cutting of hair as a degrading punishment is also worth noting, as hair—especially in Chinese culture and tradition—has social and personal significance (see Cheng 1998, 123–142).28) Generally, for the Chinese, maintaining their hair in queue style was an important physical sign of their belonging to the Celestial Empire. For a Chinese fugitive whose hair was cut, the punishment did not only “alter his appearance” but also resulted in an extreme form of moral humiliation (de Salazar [1590] 1903–7, 232; Garcia Serrano [1621–22] 1903–7, 232).29)

Strict and unjust treatment compelled some “more robust Chinese” to challenge or disobey mine authorities, both Spanish and Filipino, who supervised their lives and work. This resistance was the main reason why Santos in 1862 recommended that Chinese laborers, especially those assigned to use explosives in the mines, be supervised in a “brusquely imperious way,” as they posed a serious danger (el peligroso manejo de la pólvora) to the mines and the other workers (Santos 1862, 18, 44). Abuses were so widespread in the mines where Chinese labor was used that the 1867 Mining Decree specifically ordered the provincial governor to conduct visits to the mines. The provincial governor had to investigate whether the Chinese laborers were doing the exact work stated in their contract with the company. In this way, the Chinese miners would be legally protected from any future abuse (la protección legal que necesiten por abusos de aquella) (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376).

“On Equity and Justice”

One interesting incident, highlighting the adverse conditions in the mines, involved a petition signed by Chinese in the Lepanto mines and submitted to Governor Jose de la Gandara by the subdelegado de hacienda (subdelegate of the treasury office) of Lepanto in March 1869. The petition was filed for two reasons. First, the annual salary of the Chinese miners was inadequate to cover their living expenses, which included their food and other basic necessities. On top of these expenses, they had to pay the capitacion and falla. Second, the Chinese miners felt that they were being treated unfairly compared to native labor, since they were the ones required to do the most difficult and dangerous jobs on site. The Chinese claimed that based on the “principle of equity and justice” (por un principio de equidad y justicia), they should also enjoy the exemption privilege with regard to the polo y servicio (corvee labor)30) granted to native laborers working in the Lepanto mines. In accordance with Article 61, Section 1 of the 1867 Mining Decree, native and mestizo mine laborers were required to render only half the number of days of the polo, or if they paid in cash, they received a one-third discount on the original amount. Hence, each native or mestizo polista was required to do forced labor for only 20 days or pay its equivalent, which was 4 escudos annually (Rodriguez Berriz 1887–88, Vol. 8, 376).

In response to the governor’s inquiry about the situation on the ground, the commandant of the district of Lepanto stated that native and Chinese labor in the mines undertook the same type of work. This claim was not entirely true, as demonstrated in the foregoing discussion. For example, natives (i.e., the two indio foremen, the Igorots, and the Tinguians) were also hired as mine laborers, but only the Chinese were required to do the actual mining and underground works. The commandant further added that the Chinese miners enjoyed the privilege of paying less capitacion than Chinese who were not engaged in the mining industry (Ultramar 5202, Expediente 31).31) The appeal in the petition was not granted by the Madrid government, on the grounds that the Chinese in the mines were not subjected to any greater hardships than those imposed on the natives (los chinos . . . no se hallan obligados a mayores cargas que las impuestas a los indigenas) (Ultramar 5202, Expediente 31).

Despite the rejection of the petition, it is important to note that the colonial government in Manila and the central administration in Madrid had ways to find out what was occurring on mine sites and to address matters pertaining to the miners’ welfare. However, one challenge to the implementation of these measures was the alleged connivance between colonial authorities and mine administrators to partly conceal what was happening in the mines. Another problem was irregular and oftentimes delayed inspections by the Bureau of Mines (Santos 1862, 3). Furthermore, even when these investigations were conducted, the sentiments of the Chinese laborers were not fully conveyed because of the lack of leadership among them.

The End of Operations

Copper production began to decline in 1871. There were two possible reasons for this unfortunate event. The first had to do with the increase in copper production in other parts of the world, which affected the demand for Philippine copper, extracted mainly in Lepanto. The discovery and exploitation of copper mines in Great Britain in the late 1850s contributed to the increase in world copper production. In fact, in 1860 Britain’s coastal city of Swansea became the world’s major copper center, producing 90 percent of the total global output (Alexander 1955). The second reason was that in 1871, the anti-Chinese Governor General Rafael de Izquierdo began his tenure in the Philippines. It was during his term that new restrictive policies on Chinese occupations and residence patterns were implemented. These measures affected the recruitment and deployment of Chinese miners to Lepanto (Ultramar 5217, Expediente 43).

In 1875 the Cantabro-Filipina Company withdrew from the Lepanto mines, leaving them in the hands of a few Spaniards, who continued small-scale mining operations until the American occupation of the islands. These Spaniards, who were original shareholders of the company, assisted by some Igorot and Chinese miners (Marche [1887] 1970, 124; Scott 1974, 247–248), continued to procure small amounts of copper. Between 1883 and 1887 only 3,200 quintales of copper were produced (Perez 1902, 131–132).

Some Chinese continued to work in the mines. Together with Igorots, they engaged in smithing and minting of counterfeit siping (US Bureau of the Census 1905, 84). Many Chinese who had been in the area for a long time married Igorot women who had helped them in their small-scale mining. A German traveler in 1882 reported that the Igorot and Chinese laborers

break up the fine ore in three or four tunnels, their wives sort it out and bring it to the foundries in baskets where it is first roasted with charcoal in an open fire and then melted in a broken-down furnace. The metal is poured into cakes with a ladle, and finally taken to the coast [italics added]. (Meyer 1975, 65)

With their Igorot wives, some Chinese laborers also opened retail businesses, while one even ventured into planting coffee in the area (Perez 1902, 125–126).


From the above discussion, it is clear that Chinese miners were crucial to the development of the Philippine mining industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, Chinese laborers hired by the Cantabro-Filipina Company for its copper mines in Lepanto between 1856 and 1898 were essential in all types of mine-related activities. Their technical and manual skills and work ethic were the reasons the company employed them. However, the marginality of the Chinese miners must also be noted, especially within the context of the prevailing colonial policy and practices as well as the difficult working conditions in the mines. These adverse conditions and circumstances provided opportunities for both Spanish and native employees of the company to abuse Chinese miners, who were unable to take advantage of the legal mechanisms established by the colonial government for their protection. Their lack of effective representation (e.g., kongsi associations) in the mines administration prevented Chinese laborers from reporting their unjust treatment to the authorities. It is thus not surprising that flight was common among Chinese laborers. However, there were also some miners who, because of their long residence in the area and their local knowledge, were able to assimilate with the local population. These men married Igorot women and put down roots in Lepanto and neighboring areas.

Accepted: March 18, 2020


A. Primary Sources

National Archives of the Philippines
Manila, Philippines
Chinos (Manila, 1893–1894), SDS 13048.
Cuentas, SDS 18500.

Archivo Historico Nacional
Madrid, Spain
Ultramar 435, Expediente 33. Testigos de expedientes sobre minas en Mancayan y en Cebu [Various files about the mines in Mancayan and Cebu].

Ultramar 436, Expediente 4. Conducción de operarios para unas minas de cobre en Mancayan [Conduct of laborers in various copper mines in Mancayan].

Ultramar 443, Expediente 4. Fomento de las minas de cobre del distrito de Lepanto [Promotion of the copper mines in Lepanto District].

Ultramar 5202, Expediente 31. Concesión a los mineros chinos, que trabajan en el distrito de Lepanto, de los mismos beneficios otorgados a los naturales, en cuanto a prestaciones personales [Concession to the Chinese miners working in Lepanto District, similar to the concession on personal services given to native laborers in the same mines].

Ultramar 5203, Expediente 4, No. 13. Solicitud de prohibir comerciar a los chinos, Decretos [Request to prohibit the Chinese from engaging in commerce, Decrees].

Ultramar 5217, Expediente 43. Proyecto de reforma de la legislación sobre los chinos [Project on legislative reforms concerning the Chinese].

Archivo General de Indias
Seville, Spain
Filipinas, 881, Filipinas. Minas y Mineros 1600 a 1783 [Philippines. Mines and miners 1600 to 1783].

Abella Casariego, Enrique. 1883. Ligera reseña de la minería de las islas Filipinas [Short review of mining in the Philippine islands]. Madrid: Imprenta y Fundición de M. Tello.

Alexander, William O. 1955. A Brief Review of the Development of the Copper, Zinc, and Brass Industries in Great Britain from A.D. 1500 to 1900. Murex Review 1(15): 389–427.

“An Englishman.” 1903–7. Remarks on the Philippine Islands and on Their Capital Manila, 1819 to 1822. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 51, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 73–181. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

Buzeta, Manuel, O. S. A.; and Bravo, Felipe, O. S. A. 1850–51. Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico, de las islas Filipinas [Geographic, statistical, and historical dictionary of the Philippine Islands], 2 vols. Madrid: Imprenta de D. Jose C. de la Peña.

Cavada, Agustin de la y Mendez de Vigo. 1876. Historia geográfica, geológica y estadística de Filipinas [Geographic, geological, and statistical history of the Philippines]. Vol. 1. Manila: Ramirez y Giraudier.

Centeno y Garcia, Jose. 1881. Memoria sobre los temblores de tierra ocurridos en Julio de 1880 en la isla de Luzon [Report on the earthquakes that occurred in July 1880 on the island of Luzon]. Madrid: Impr. de la Guirnalda.

―. 1876. Memoria geologico-minera de las islas Filipinas [Geological and mining report of the Philippine islands]. Madrid: Imprenta y Fundicion de Manuel Tello.

de Comenge, Rafael. 1894. Cuestiones Filipinas, 1a parte: Los Chinos (Estudio Social y Politico) [Philippine questions, first part: The Chinese (social and political studies)]. Manila: Tipo-Litografia de Chofre y Compania.

de Gracia, Maximino Lillo. 1877. Filipinas, Distrito de Lepanto: Descripción general acompañada de itinerario y croquis del teritorio [The Philippines, Lepanto District: General description, accompanied by an itinerary and a sketch of the territory]. Manila: Imprenta del Colegio de Santo Tomas.

de Lacalle y Sanchez, Jose. 1886. Tierras y razas del archipiélago Filipino [Lands and races of the Philippine archipelago]. Manila: Est. Tipog. del Colegio de Santo Tomas.

de Morga, Antonio. 1903–7. Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas [Events in the Philippine islands]. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 16, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 25–210. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

de Salazar, Domingo. [1590] 1903–7. The Chinese and the Parian at Manila, June 24, 1590. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 7, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 212–238. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

de Sande, Francisco. [1576] 1903–7. Relation of the Filipinas Islands, June 7. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 4, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, p. 54. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

de Viana, Francisco Leandro. 1903–7. Financial Affairs of the Islands, 1766, Manila, July 10, 1766. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 50, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 77–117. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

de Viana, Lorelei D. C. 2001. Three Centuries of Binondo Architecture, 1594–1898. España, Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.

Early Franciscan Missions. 1895 [written in 1649]; 1903–7. In The Philippine Islands, Vol. 35, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 278–322. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

Font, Salvador. 1892. Memoria acerca de las misiones de los PP. Agustinos Calzados en las islas Filipinas: Presentada al Excmo. Sr. Ministro de Ultramar en 1892 por el R. P. Comisario de la misma orden [Report related to the missions of the Augustinian friars in the Philippine Islands: Presented to His Excellency, the Minister of Overseas Colonies, in 1892 by the commissar of the said order]. Madrid: Imprenta de Don Luis Aguado.

Foreman, John. 1899. The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago. Second Edition. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh.

Garcia Serrano, Miguel. [1621–22] 1903–7. Letters from the Archbishop of Manila to the King. Manila, 1621–1622. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 20, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 226–248. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

Letter from Andres de Mirandola to Felipe II, January 8, 1574. 1903–7. In The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Vol. 3, edited by Emma Blair and James Robertson, pp. 223–224. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, Co.

Los terremotos de Filipinas en Julio de 1880: Extracto del Diario de Manila [The earthquakes in the Philippines in July 1880: Extracted from the Diario de Manila]. 1880. Manila: Establecimiento Tipografico de Ramirez y Giraudier.

Marche, Alfred. [1887] 1970. Luzon and Palawan. Manila: Filipiniana Book Guild.

Minas de cobre del Distrito de Lepanto (Filipinas) [Copper mines in the district of Lepanto (Philippines)]. 1862. Manila: Imprenta del Colegio de Santo Tomas.

Perez, Angel. 1902. Igorrotes: Estudio geográfico y etnográfico sobre algunos distritos del Norte de Luzon [Igorots: a geographic and ethnographic study on various districts in Northern Luzon]. Vol. 1. Manila: Imp. de “El Mercantil.”

Reglamento interior para la mejor administración de la sociedad Española, Minero-Metalúrgica Cantabro-Filipina de Mancayan [Internal regulation for the administration of the Spanish company Minero-Metalurgica Cantabro-Filipina de Mancayan]. 1862. Manila: Imprenta de Ramirez y Giraudier.

Rodriguez Berriz, Miguel. 1887–88. Diccionario de la administración de Filipinas [Dictionary of the administration in the Philippines], 15 vols. Manila: Establecimiento Tipo-Lit. de Ma. Perez (Hijo).

Santos, Jose Maria. 1862. Informe sobre las minas de cobre de las rancherías de Mancayan, Suyuk, Bumucun y Agbao [Report on the copper mines in the villages of Mancayan, Suyuk, Bumucun, and Agbao]. Manila: Imprenta del Colegio de Santo Tomas.

Sawyer, Frederick H. 1900. The Inhabitants of the Philippines. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

US Bureau of the Census. 1905. Census of the Philippine Islands Taken under the Direction of the Philippine Commission in the Year 1903. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

B. Secondary Sources

Ang See, Teresita; Go Bon, Juan; Go Yu, Doreen; and Chua, Yvonne, eds. 2005. Tsinoy: The Story of the Chinese in Philippine Life. Manila: Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran.

Cole, Fay-Cooper. 1915. Traditions of the Tinguians: A Study in Philippine Folklore. Vol. 14, No. 1. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, publication 180.

Corpuz, Onofre D. 1997. An Economic History of the Philippines. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

De Bevoise, Ken. 1995. Agents of Apocalypse: Epidemic Disease in the Colonial Philippines. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lopez, Salvador P. 1992. Isles of Gold: A History of Mining in the Philippines. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Manuel, E. Arsenio. 1948. Chinese Elements in the Tagalog Language, with Some Indication of Chinese Influence on Other Philippine Languages and Cultures, and an Excursion into Austronesian Linguistics. Manila: Filipiniana Publications.

Scott, William Henry. 1994. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

―. 1975a. History on the Cordillera: Collected Writings on Mountain Province History. Baguio City: Baguio Printing & Publishing Co.

―, ed. 1975b. German Travelers on the Cordillera (1860–1890). Manila: Filipiniana Book Guild.

―. 1974. The Discovery of the Igorots: Spanish Contacts with the Pagans of Northern Luzon. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.

Wang Tai Peng. 1994. The Origins of Chinese Kongsi. Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications.

Webb, Walter Prescott. 1964. The Great Frontier. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wickberg, Edgar. 2000. The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850–1898. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Yen Ching-Hwang. 1985. Coolies and Mandarins: China’s Protection of Overseas Chinese during the Late Ch’ing Period (1851–1911). Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Bamero, Alma. 2006. Opium: The Evolution of Policies, the Tolerance of the Vice, and the Proliferation of Contraband Trade in the Philippines, 1843–1908. Social Science Diliman 3(1–2) (December): 49–83.

Cheng Weikun. 1998. Politics of the Queue: Agitation and Resistance in the Beginning and End of Qing China. In Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, edited by Alf Hiltebeitel and Barbara D. Miller, pp. 123–142. New York: State University of New York Press.

Diaz-Trechuelo, Maria Lourdes. 1965. Eighteenth Century Philippine Economy: Mining. Philippine Studies 13(4): 763–800.

Escoto, Salvador. 1998. Francisco Xavier Salgado, Civil Servant and Pioneer Industrialist in Eighteenth Century Philippines. Southeast Asian Studies 36(3) (December): 273–292.

Habana, Olivia M. 2001. Gold Mining in Benguet: 1900–1941. Philippine Studies 49(1): 3–41.

―. 2000. Gold Mining in Benguet to 1898. Philippine Studies 48(4): 455–487.

Hu-DeHart, Evelyn. 1994. Chinese Coolie Labor in Cuba in the Nineteenth Century: Free Labor or Neoslavery? Contributions in Black Studies 12: 38–54.

McKeown, Adam. 2011. The Social Life of Chinese Labor. In Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia, edited by Eric Tagliacozzo and Chang Wen-Chin, pp. 62–83. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Meagher, Arnold. 2008. The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America, 1847–1874. Philadelphia: Xlibris.

Meyer, Hans. 1975. The Igorots. In German Travelers on the Cordillera (1860–1890), edited by William Henry Scott, pp. 46–103. Manila: Filipiniana Book Guild.

Plehn, Carl C. 1901. Taxation in the Philippines I. Political Science Quarterly 16(4) (December): 680–711.

Reid, Anthony. 2011. Chinese on the Mining Frontier in Southeast Asia. In Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia, edited by Eric Tagliacozzo and Chang Wen-Chin, pp. 21–36. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

See Chinben. 1992. Chinese Clanship in the Philippine Setting. In The Chinese Immigrants: Selected Writings of Professor Chinben See, edited by Teresita Ang See, pp. 108–114. Manila: Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran and De La Salle University.

Semper, Carl. 1975. Trip through the Northern Provinces of the Island of Luzon. In German Travelers on the Cordillera (1860–1890), edited by William Henry Scott, pp. 17–34. Manila: Filipiniana Book Guild.

Trocki, Carl. 2011. Opium as a Commodity in the Chinese Nanyang Trade. In Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia, edited by Eric Tagliacozzo and Chang Wen-Chin, pp. 84–104. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

von Drasche, Richard. 1975. The Military Districts of Benguet, Lepanto and Bontoc (1876). In German Travelers on the Cordillera (1860–1890), edited by William Henry Scott, pp. 35–45. Manila: Filipiniana Book Guild.

Electronic Source
Speech of President Quezon on Filipino National Language, December 30, 1937. Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines., accessed February 20, 2020.

1) In accordance with Philippine President Manuel Quezon’s Executive Order No. 134, issued in 1937, Tagalog became the basis of the country’s “national language,” which is Filipino (Speech of President Quezon on Filipino National Language, December 30, 1937).

2) “Luzon,” the name of the largest Philippine island, was derived from early Chinese merchants (called sangleyes by the Spaniards) referring to it as Luzon, “Island of Gold” (Lopez 1992).

3) The main sources of information for this paper came from archives and libraries in the Philippines and Spain. I used official Spanish documents from the National Archives of the Philippines (Manila), the Archivo Historico Nacional (Madrid), and the Archivo General de Indias (Seville). Books published during the nineteenth century as well as reports by the Inspeccion General de Minas (General Inspection of Mines) were taken from the University of the Philippines—Main Library (Quezon City) and the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid).

4) Christianized groups from the lowland towns of the Ilocos region.

5) The term “Igorots” generally refers to Filipinos born on the Central Cordillera in Northern Luzon. More accurately, the Igorots are divided into six ethno-linguistic groups—Isneg (Apayao), Kalinga, Bontoc, Ifugao, Kankanay, and Ibaloy—who for three centuries resisted assimilation into the Spanish Empire (Scott 1974, 2).

6) Tinguians are the indigenous peoples of Abra Province, in northwestern Luzon (Cole 1915, 3).

7) The term “mineral belt” was coined by American mining prospectors to refer to the Lepanto-Bontoc area, where gold and copper abounded.

8) In this context, the term “Filipino” refers to the Visayans in the central part of the Philippines. The Visayans were the first inhabitants of the islands with whom the Spanish conquistadores had initial contacts before the Spanish colonial city of Manila was established in 1571 (Scott 1994, 55).

9) Iron and copper were the two most imported metals from China during that period.

10) I use the concept of “windfalls” as formulated by Walter Prescott Webb (1964, 1–28, 180–202). According to Webb, a windfall is a resource “that comes free and unexpected and of good import.” Windfalls can be categorized into (1) primary, or “those quickly come at, things that could be had with a minimum of investment and little preliminary work”; and (2) secondary, or those which require “a long time element of waiting, and often great expense, too great for the endurance of a distant and impatient investor.”

11) The Mambulao mines had been explored in the 1660s–1690s but had not produced enough iron to cover the expenses incurred in their operations.

12) Parian was the Chinese enclave in Manila, established in 1581.

13) After 1795 the mines were taken over by the businessman Don Domingo Rojas and engineer Don Jose Barco. The two partners expanded the geographic scope of the mines. They also imported machines from Europe to be used in the mines. Unfortunately, due to nearly impassable dirt roads leading to the mines, the machines were not installed and thereby became useless.

14) Webb classified mineral resources such as gold and silver under primary windfalls. However, while Lepanto copper was a mineral resource, it took a long time (about six years) and a huge amount of capital investment before the mines produced ample ores to cover expenses and make a profit.

15) The manufacture of sipings was part of the Igorot copper industry. Extremely rude counterfeits of Spanish copper coins, which were much thicker, sipings were made because of the virtual lack of small change in Lepanto and other parts of northern Luzon. Sipings were valued at a cent and a quarter Mexican, with 4 sipings being equal to 5 centavos. Spanish efforts to curb the manufacture of sipings met with limited success. When American mining prospectors went to Lepanto in the 1900s, they found some Igorots and Chinese engaged in producing the coins, albeit in smaller quantities than what was produced in the nineteenth century.

16) According to Jose Centeno y Garcia, the order for the exploration was issued from Madrid in 1833.

17) A ranchería was a small settlement or village of indios who had not yet been converted to Christianity. A ranchería consisted of not more than 60 houses and not more than 250 inhabitants.

18) One metric quintal is equivalent to about 100 pounds or 46 kilograms.

19) An example of this process was how Doña Maria Isabel Careaga, a contractor in the wine industry, was able to get the lease of the Santa Ines iron mines in Morong in 1781.

20) For a list of Hokkien and Cantonese surnames represented by Chinese clan associations in the Philippines between the 1880s and 1980s, see See (1992, 108–114).

21) It must be noted that from the middle of the eighteenth century until the 1850s, coolie labor was practically non-existent in the Philippines, as a result of Chinese massacres and expulsions as well as the Spaniards’ restrictive immigration policies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

22) Three-year contracts were made also between the company and buyers of copper yields from Mancayan.

23) As a measure of dry weight, one arroba is equivalent to 11.506 kilograms; when used as a liquid measure, it is 16.1 liters.

24) Suyuc, the largest of the minor mines, was situated 8 kilometers from Mancayan.

25)No creo exista establecimiento de igual especie con jornales tan modicos.”

26) The Augustinian friar Angel Perez gave only the surnames of these individuals: Señores Prat and Ruiz (Perez 1902, 127). He must have been referring to two shareholders in the Cantabro-Filipina Company: Joaquin Prat and Victor Ruiz Lanzarote.

27) These wines were fermented by the Igorots of Suyuc (see Perez 1902, 139). When Antonio Hernandez explored the area, he noted how the Igorots made and drank basi, which he described as “bebida espirituosa de arroz [rice wine]” (Ultramar 443, Expediente 4).

28) When the Manchus came to power in 1611, they decreed that all Chinese (i.e., Han Chinese) had to wear their hair in queue style, which symbolized the Manchus’ success in subjecting the vast population to their control.

29) Before the nineteenth century, the cutting of Chinese queues in the Philippines was an important issue as far as the Catholic fathers were concerned. For Catholics, such an activity was an important manifestation of the Chinese converts’ severing of ties with their “pagan” religions and embracing Christianity. Many Chinese, however, continued to resist (Ultramar 5203, Expediente 4, No. 13).

30) After the successful Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the late sixteenth century, all able-bodied male inhabitants of the islands aged 16 to 60 years were required to render 40 days of forced labor (called polo y servicio or polo) to the colonial state. The 1867 Mining Decree extended this policy to the Chinese. However, instead of rendering service, the Chinese were required to pay the falla of 3 pesos. This was in addition to the capitacion they had to pay every year.

31) In accordance with the Royal Decree of December 22, 1850, Chinese who were engaged in mining, fisheries, forestry, and shipbuilding would pay only 5 reales. On the other hand, those who were not in these industries would have to pay more depending on their tax classification.


Vol. 9, No. 3, Albert Hasudungan and Jeffrey Neilson


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

The Institutional Environment of the Palm Oil Value Chain and Its Impact on Community Development in Kapuas Hulu, Indonesia

Albert Hasudungan* and Jeffrey Neilson**

*School of Business and Economics, Universitas Prasetiya Mulya, BSD City Kavling Edutown I.1 Jl. BSD Raya Utama, BSD City Kabupaten Tangerang Banten 15339, Indonesia
Corresponding author’s e-mail: albert.hasdung[at]; albert.hasudungan[at]
**School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_439

The aim of this study is to present the multi-scalar institutional environment that has emerged around the palm oil value chain, and to analyze how this influences community development outcomes in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan. A common narrative presented by many environmental organizations, and indeed often reinforced in the academic literature, is one where local communities actively resist the expansion of oil palm plantations but are ultimately powerless to halt it. This narrative tends to depend on, and reinforces, a portrait of traditional communities as being dependent on subsistence food provisioning and natural resources for their livelihoods, thus making them particularly sensitive to the widespread environmental changes caused by this highly transformative—in a landscape sense—type of commercial agriculture. This research draws upon mixed method data collection techniques, including eight months of participant observation fieldwork across three villages in 2016 and 2017, group discussions, household surveys, and semi-structured interviews. Conceptually, we develop an understanding of the institutional environment as applied within global value chain theory, which we present as a complex amalgam of social structures from within the value chain (especially governance by lead firms), those external to it (including formal state institutions and NGOs), and the changing customary institutions within production landscapes. The ability of local communities to participate in the construction of this broader institutional environment, and to benefit from it, is of critical importance when assessing the impact of incorporation within the palm oil economy. This study thus helps present a more nuanced analysis of community engagement with palm oil and the processes driving contemporary agrarian change.

Keywords: institutions, institutional environment, global value chains, palm oil, swidden, agrarian change, Indonesia, Kalimantan

I Introduction

The ongoing expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia has been actively challenged by various advocacy groups and foreign governments on both social and environmental grounds, whilst being strongly supported by the government of Indonesia. The negotiating space within which decisions are made regarding this expansion connects primary producers, processors, exporters, importers, product manufacturers, retailers, and final consumers within the value chain with a much broader set of societal actors, including traditional landowners, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and governments, that are essentially external to the value chain. Collectively, these actors mutually construct a continually emergent institutional environment within which industry and community outcomes are shaped. We borrow the concept of the institutional environment as applied within global value chain (GVC) theory, and use it in this article to refer to the complex amalgam of social structures both from within the value chain (especially governance by lead firms) as well as external to it (including formal state institutions and NGOs, but also extending in our case to customary law arrangements). Despite such complex multi-scalar institutional connections, industry critics tend to highlight the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts occurring in remote rural regions as a simple consequence of exploitation by downstream corporate actors (Paganini 2018). The market dominance of powerful corporations is associated with the economic marginalization of swidden-based farming communities in Kalimantan, which are heavily dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods (Colchester et al. 2006). Yet, as described by J. F. McCarthy (2010), outcomes on the ground in rural communities are highly variable and include successful wealth accumulation—especially by local elites—often occurring alongside “adverse incorporation” and deepening poverty for others. Blanket claims about the industry are often made without adequate consideration of the ways many smallholders actively seek to rearrange the terms under which they engage with the palm oil economy.

This paper presents the multi-scalar institutional environment within which local communities have become enmeshed by virtue of their participation in the global value chain for palm oil. This study contributes to our knowledge of how the outcomes of community engagements with the palm oil industry are shaped by the strategies of NGOs, customary landowners, the government, and agribusiness and food processing firms. An understanding of the institutional environment thus created can also be helpful to identify points of leverage to effect change. It furthermore makes a contribution to our understanding of contemporary agrarian change as being shaped by a broad constellation of actors, including those operating at a distance through the global value chain.

The aim of this study is to present the multi-scalar institutional environment that has emerged around the palm oil value chain, and to analyze how this influences community development outcomes in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan (Fig. 1). According to understandings of value chain governance, lead firms will position themselves strategically amongst competitors to serve their own interests while also meeting consumer expectations in respect to economic, social, and environmental conditions, resulting in particular strategies to manage a globally coordinated production process (Neilson et al. 2018). Drawing upon eight months of fieldwork in Kapuas Hulu, this paper demonstrates the way in which the multi-scalar institutional environment presents room to maneuver for communities and individuals engaging with the palm oil sector. This study unpacks the complex interactions of agribusiness firms, the government, and NGOs with local customary arrangements. Downstream firms play a key role in governing the value chain to ensure faster and more efficient supply chain deliveries by extending their reach into local communities through the establishment of physical infrastructure such as roads and manufacturing mills, but this is also mediated by the broader institutional environment.



Fig. 1 The Study Site of Kapuas Hulu District in West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Source: Authors, prepared using ArcGIS Software.


II The Institutional Environment: The Global Value Chain and Beyond

Our understanding of the institutional environment shaping development outcomes in the palm oil economy is greatly assisted through recent conceptual developments in GVC theory. GVC analysis helps us, in the first instance, to understand how value is added through an input-output structure, by tracing production from upstream producers (such as farmers) to primary processors, exporters, importers, product manufacturers, retailers, and on to final consumers. In the contemporary global economy, these value-adding processes are often geographically dispersed across regions and countries and have their own “territoriality.” Within a value chain, moreover, there is often a dynamic relationship among different actors that governs the flow and allocation of profit and human resources throughout the chain (Hassler 2009). When examining the entire chain, it becomes clear that different groups make their own rules to regulate and allocate resources among their members and to dictate the actions of others elsewhere in the chain. Such rules of the game can be thought of as being embodied within governance structures that are often strongly dictated by the most powerful actors in the chain—those lead firms located at strategic value-adding nodes. The critical conceptual contribution of GVC analysis has thus been to highlight the ability of such firms to dictate chain governance structures.

G. Gereffi (1995) described how a (value) chain does not only possess an input-output structure, a territoriality, and a governance structure but is also contained within an “institutional framework.” He defined this as “how local, national, and international conditions and policies shape the globalization process at each stage of the chain” (Gereffi 1995, 113). Subsequent work in GVC studies, however, for instance by J. Neilson and B. Pritchard (2009), has further developed an understanding of the institutional framework of GVCs that borrows more explicitly from the work on institutions in new institutional sociology and economics such as that by D. C. North, who explained:

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights). Throughout history, institutions have been devised by human beings to create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange. (North 1991, 97)

In this paper we follow the clear distinction in North’s (1990) study between “institutions” and “organizations,” the former being the “rules” and the latter the “players.” We also respect North’s fundamental distinction between “institutional arrangements” as discrete arrangements between economic units and the broader “institutional environment” as the “fundamental political, social and legal ground rules that establish the basis for production, exchange and distribution” (Davis and North 1971, 6–7). According to Neilson and Pritchard (2009), it is necessary for GVC analysis to move beyond a concept of the institutional framework as something that GVCs are “framed within,” toward one that is both external and internal to chains. They argue that “The institutional environment is a pre-determining characteristic of the governance structures which subsequently emerge within the chain and which, in turn, then act upon those arrangements in continual feedback” (Neilson and Pritchard 2009, 56).

To examine palm oil dynamics in West Kalimantan, we borrow and apply this understanding of the institutional environment of a GVC as an amalgam of rules, norms, and conventions set by lead firms from within the chain along with those constructed by extra-firm actors who are essentially external to it. The approach builds on the insights generated by J. F. McCarthy et al. (2012), where oil palm development outcomes in Indonesia were examined by drawing together insights from GVC theory with the literature on state formation and regime interests. We have also been influenced by the earlier work on dynamic legal pluralism in political ecology by R. S. Meinzen-Dick and R. Pradhan (2002), who highlighted the ambiguity of rules and coexisting multiplicity of legal systems and institutions with respect to natural resource access and exploitation. Importantly, various local, national, and global institutions (formal and informal) intersect in a multi-scalar process to ultimately shape how natural resources are allocated and controlled (Meinzen-Dick and Pradhan 2002).

This article applies a value chain analysis to examine the complex relationships among different layers of institutions connected to the value chain. In this multi-layered institutional environment, different actors negotiate rules to determine the right to access and use resources under specific conditions (McCarthy 2006). In the case of oil palm, T. M. Li (2015) found a degradation of customary institutions when local villagers were incorporated into palm oil value chains. We extend those observations by scrutinizing how local customary institutions are constantly challenged by various institutions associated with the palm oil value chain in Kapuas Hulu. We specifically examine the changing labor and resource access arrangements influenced by palm oil value chains.

In their application of GVC theory to the global cocoa sector, N. Fold and J. Neilson (2016) argue that while firms are increasingly able to determine the rules and standards in the global value chain, they act in a dialectical relationship with extra-firm actors, including state-based actors and NGOs. While the government often supports proposals for oil palm development in Indonesia, several NGOs strongly reject oil palm development (Levang et al. 2016), continually recreating spaces of negotiation. Similarly, the “inextricably entwined and mutually constitutive” interests of the state and large agribusiness are highlighted by McCarthy et al. (2012), who demonstrate how these interests coalesce to shape development pathways.

In Kapuas Hulu, we find community and household attitudes toward oil palm are far from homogenous, are difficult to predict, and appear to be highly contingent. This is suggested elsewhere, for example, in the diverse outcomes reported in Jambi, Sumatra (McCarthy 2010), and West Kalimantan (Potter 2011), where local community engagements as relatively independent landholders and highly dependent contract farmers were respectively reported. In the palm oil economy, local communities are seen to pursue quite diverse livelihood portfolios (Elmhirst et al. 2016), which clearly affects disparate development outcomes, and these outcomes frequently reflect a shifting set of local cultural institutions. This study examines how particular institutions, within and external to the global value chain and operating across multiple scales, coalesce in an institutional environment to shape different modes of oil palm community engagement with impacts on processes of agrarian change.

III Research Methods

This research uses a case study approach, and fieldwork was conducted across three villages in Kapuas Hulu District, West Kalimantan, as shown in Fig. 1. Each village was selected based on particular geographies, ethnic composition, and modes of engagement with oil palm development. Village A and Village B (both located proximate to the Malaysian border) were chosen partly due to their relatively recent incorporation within the palm oil economy, which occurred from around 2012 and was driven partly by territorial competition at the national scale with Malaysia. On the other hand, oil palm development in Village C commenced in the early 2000s and was promoted by local government elites as a means to replace the swidden practices that they considered an unproductive use of land resources. The development model in Village C included a significant smallholder production base, and it attracted migrants to either work directly on their own smallholdings or to work as plantation labor (Leonald and Rowland 2016).

A key reason for the inclusion of both Village A and Village B in the study was the reported dominance of ethnic Malays in the former and Iban Dayaks in the latter. Household livelihood surveys were conducted on a sample of 40 households within each of the three villages (120 household responses in total), where households were invited to participate based on a random selection from listings provided by administrative village heads. Table 1 shows the approximate ethnic composition of the villages based on this survey, which confirmed information provided by earlier interviews.


Table 1 Ethnic Composition of Each Village



Qualitative data collection techniques were undertaken in 2016 and 2017, comprising participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and group discussions. Participant observation is a way of collecting information about social activities within a particular society using both verbal and non-verbal clues (Schmuck 1997). It was conducted in Kapuas Hulu to trace local attitudes toward farming systems and livelihoods linked to oil palm, and lasted a total of six months, with two months in each of the three villages. Semi-structured interviews sought to capture various institutional forms of oil palm development and perceptions toward oil palm development. The selection of informants was based on their ability to communicate their ideas and experiences relevant to the research investigation (Dunn 2005). In both village and local urban centres, a total of 40 interviews with a variety of informants and stakeholders were undertaken, as presented in Table 2. Interview topics within the village environments included local demographic change, perceptions of the introduction of oil palm in their villages, and changes in land access, labor arrangements, and livelihood strategies. Group discussions were organized to obtain responses regarding palm oil development in local areas and were used to observe the interpersonal dynamics between different individuals. Discussions were either organized explicitly by the researcher (as in Village B) or involved attending regular village meetings (as in Village A and Village C).


Table 2 List of Semi-structured Interview Informants



IV The Multi-scalar Institutional Environment in Kapuas Hulu

The following analysis is based on a three-fold assessment of the institutional environment, which we present in terms of: (i) governance structures resulting from lead firm strategies within the global value chain; (ii) institutions constructed by extra-firm actors who are essentially external to the value chain (including the government and NGOs); and (iii) informal customary institutions peculiar to place-based sites of production. While we recognize that these three forms are, in a sense, arbitrary in that they are actually mutually constituted, we present them separately here for analytical purposes. It is, however, our intention that they be considered as collectively coalescing to construct a broader multi-scalar institutional environment that in turn shapes the nature of palm oil–community engagements.

Governance Structures within the Palm Oil Value Chain

Indonesia produces significant volumes of several agricultural commodities for the global market, including palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, such that the activities of global lead firms in these sectors often exert a powerful influence on sites of production. For example, chocolate manufacturing firms have been generally reluctant to get directly involved in farm-level cocoa production due to the relatively low cost-capability ratio for that activity (Neilson et al. 2018). While chocolate firms would struggle to manage labor more efficiently than smallholder farmers, their influence on agricultural production is exerted (at a distance) through various commitments to sustainability programs and certification schemes (Neilson et al. 2018). Moreover, chocolate firms have also outsourced primary processing of cocoa beans to specialist grinding firms rather than absorbing these costs themselves, and it is these firms that frequently implement farm-level development programs. The economics of palm oil, however, are different. The end users of palm oil are more diverse across a number of consumer products, such that ultimate lead firms (generally branded food manufacturers) are unlikely to be involved in agricultural production. They do, however, rely on large agribusiness firms as suppliers of palm oil products, and these firms (unlike cocoa processors) are intimately involved in agricultural production themselves.

The cost calculations of oil palm plantations are far more dependent on capital (manifest particularly in access to land and fertilizers) than cocoa plantations, which have lower capital-labor ratios (Budidarsono et al. 2012). Therefore, being a competitive oil palm producer in Indonesia, and a strategic supplier to global lead firms, generally depends on obtaining access to large areas of land, with reliable access to finance and a disciplined labor force. For such potential investors with the necessary connections to political decision makers, Kapuas Hulu seemed to provide the right combination of factors.

The combination of financial and political capital possessed by agribusiness firms in the palm oil sector is disproportionate to that possessed by local communities as the customary landowners, whose rights over land are highly variable and determined by an assortment of both formal and informal institutions. As a result, the terms of community engagement with these firms are overwhelmingly shaped by firm-specific priorities. In Village A and Village B, PT Buana Tunas Sejahtera (PT BTS)1) made a contractual agreement with the community where local community members were enrolled as laborers, and where the firm was in direct control of production. In that negotiation, the firm acquired a 30-year Hak Guna Usaha (leasing concession right, HGU) from the government over customary land after obtaining written consent from representatives of the community. In return, the firm was to pay 20 percent dividends from its profit to the original landowners (KOPSA MGB and BTS 2010). According to community representatives, this contract reflected an attempt by the firm to formally limit the activities of smallholder farmers while ensuring access to labor.

The processes through which agribusiness firms are able to access land to begin with are critical and complicated (Hasudungan and Neilson 2020). First, agribusiness firms routinely construct a discourse around poor smallholder agricultural capacity and productivity in order to accumulate land and assert control over resources. To convince the government of the superiority of large-scale plantations over local agricultural systems, investors present local swidden cultivations as backward and unproductive (Potter 2011). This provides a conducive environment for the subsequent lease negotiations between firms and the state at the district and national levels. To then ensure optimal land access, agribusiness firms seek ways to negotiate contractual agreements that allow them greater direct control of upstream production sites. This means that agribusiness firms need to engage in active negotiations and bargaining with actors outside the value chain, including government and local communities, the latter primarily as gatekeepers of land but whose members often later participate directly in the value chain as either fruit suppliers or laborers.

Community consent emerges as a key milestone in ensuring access to land, but since negotiating with all the landholders is costly, time-consuming, and uncertain, firms inevitably choose to pursue contract negotiations mediated through a more limited number of customary elites (Li 2015). Our fieldwork in multiethnic Village A, where a Dayak leader occupied the position of village head, found that the allure of promised future prosperity was an important factor in eliciting consent. One firm’s representatives took village leaders to the firm’s other plantation in Riau, on the east coast of Sumatra, where the visitors were exposed to apparently high levels of material prosperity, which they associated with corporate control of oil palm production. In this case, however, it led to later disappointment:

About 30 village leaders were invited to a comparative study in Riau. They were shown the development in the firm’s concession, and in return we gave the land to them. Yet those promises were misleading. What they promised was different from the current reality. (Respondent J, Iban, 2016)

Through these field trips and other activities, the firm expected key leaders in the village to convince others to agree to land transfers, and these leaders were often recruited for this specific purpose. As negotiations progressed in this case, the firm sought to directly influence internal community dynamics and increasingly relied on existing institutions of patronage through which customary leaders would provide material and social support to their “clients” in return for obedience and recognition of their superior social standing. Through the successful recruitment of such local patrons as supporters of the firm, the likelihood of acquiescence from other community members was greatly increased, resulting in more secure access to the natural resources available on community lands.

In these contested land deals, some customary Dayak elites rejected the contractual conditions while others became strong advocates in favor of the offered agreements, leading to sometimes-serious intra-community conflict. One Dayak community member sold access rights to large tracts of land with the expectation that his children would be given supervisor-level jobs within the firm. The upstream influence of agribusiness firms within communities divided aspirations in ways that sometimes led to horizontal conflict and violence. Another Dayak man revealed how he had been verbally abused as a result of his father-in-law opposing the firm contracts, the terms and conditions of which he felt were unclear. In another instance, it was recounted that a man who supported the firm ended up in a duel (using a machete-like weapon known as mandau) with another man who opposed it. Such conflicts also led to imprisonment, such as a case in Village B, when an Iban man contested his neighbor’s recently placed boundary markers for land sold to the firm, leading him to physically threaten a firm representative with his mandau. The Iban man, whose frustration at his inability to assert his rights was palpable, was later sentenced to jail:

My older brother was convicted by the law because of that conflict over the land (boundary). He couldn’t find a legal solution to that issue, so he brought his mandau, and the firm representative claimed he was attempting to kill him. He was prosecuted in Putussibau. (Respondent N, Village C, 2016)

Lead firms in a global value chain, moreover, position themselves strategically amongst competitors to meet consumers’ expectations in respect to various quality, economic, social, and environmental requirements (Neilson et al. 2018). This is often associated with a stronger buyer-driven governance structure within the chain. Gereffi (1994) emphasized how lead firms enact such governance within a chain, not necessarily through the direct ownership of upstream firms but through decentralized production settings, outsourcing, and indirect control. Large agri-food firms, such as Sinarmas Group (which owns Golden Agri Resources, GAR) and Indofood, operate as lead firms in the palm oil value chain. Both these Indonesian-owned conglomerates, for example, are manufacturers of diversified consumer products including cooking oil, while also engaging upstream with plantation production.

For the most part, these lead firms enact relatively strict supply chain traceability programs on third-party suppliers. On the GAR website,2) the firm provides detailed information regarding third-party suppliers and its attempts to manage them. For example, a GAR internal monitoring team found indications of 2018 clearing of high-conservation-value forest in West Kalimantan by PT BTS (a GAR third-party supplier), which was subsequently deemed to be non-compliant with GAR’s grievance process.3) An alternative model is evident in Kapuas Hulu, where PT Riau Agrotama Plantation is a subsidiary of Indofood Agri, a major agribusiness conglomerate with a reported 247,630 hectares of oil palm across Indonesia in 2017 along with 26 palm oil mills and five refineries (IndoAgri 2016). Both Indofood Agri and Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology are important suppliers for the domestic market, for which they manufacture consumer products, while also exporting to various markets across Asia-Pacific and Europe.

Specific norms around corporate social responsibility have emerged within the palm oil sector that in themselves constitute institutional forms (that is, accepted patterns of behavior). Lead firms enact interventions along the value chain primarily in an attempt to ensure long-term stability over palm oil supplies, which often involves upstream commitments to stimulate local development surrounding the mills (SMART 2016). To meet their supply needs (and consumer expectations), lead firms have funded the building of mills, roads, schools, and facilities around Kapuas Hulu. Indofood Agri has initiated social investments through its Solidarity Programme(IndoAgri 2016), which delivers improved community health and education facilities in an explicit attempt to improve relationships with the local community of Village C. Such social infrastructure development has been replicated in Village A and Village B by other agribusiness firms to fulfill their corporate interests to integrate more productive and capable potential laborers in their supply chain. Indeed, relatively high rates of satisfaction with education and health infrastructure were reported by respondents to our household survey, as presented in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3, even if satisfaction with education facilities was somewhat lower in the more established oil palm plantation of Village C.



Fig. 2 Satisfaction with Education Services in Oil Palm Villages

Source: Authors’ survey, 2016.



Fig. 3 Satisfaction with Health Services in Oil Palm Villages

Source: Authors’ survey, 2016.


While an expanding corporate infrastructure program primarily serves strategic business interests, rural households with adequate capability assets can leverage this to configure diversified livelihood strategies where they effectively engage with multiple value chains simultaneously (Bolwig et al. 2010). For instance, with improved access to education and health care, some members of the local community are able to access better jobs on the plantations and elsewhere. In an interview with a younger, high-school-educated Dayak man, he explained that the ability to write, read, and understand basic numerical calculations allowed him to work as a field supervisor on a plantation and improve his overall economic situation.

Indeed, many community members have successfully upgraded their positions within the value chain to occupy more lucrative positions as collectors or middlemen, where they use the improved infrastructure to supply mills in Sintang, a processing hub farther down the Kapuas River. They act as local market conduits from smallholders to downstream value chain actors, and use their economic position to coordinate and increase smallholder production. These chains continue to be effectively governed by lead firms, which create limiting institutions for participation, including through price and standard settings, although collectors also retain a degree of autonomy.

The characteristics of oil palm fruit have a powerful effect on the value chain structure and the relations between actors. Fresh fruit bunches generally need to be processed within 48 hours to maintain oil quality, and prices paid are severely discounted or rejected outright if delivery is delayed. A relatively capital-intensive processing mill will thus often be surrounded by a hinterland of producers who are virtually tied to it with few alternative marketing options, with resulting highly uneven power relations between the two sets of actors. It can also have the effect of empowering transport operators who provide a critical service linking them together. During the period of fieldwork in 2017, when general market prices for oil palm fruit in West Kalimantan were around IDR 1,600 per kilo, local middlemen in Village C would pay as little as IDR 1,300 per kilo due to these local dynamics.

We observe how contractual deals for large-scale oil palm plantations can affect social relations among customary leaders as a result of firm-specific strategies to assert control over supplies. Despite that disruption, the palm oil value chain functions in other ways to facilitate local participation in this value chain and in other economic activities. Previous research has emphasized that smallholding oil palm plantations can indeed be a way for local villagers to adopt commodity production largely on their own terms (Cramb and Sujang 2013; Potter 2015). In our study, the business capabilities of some individuals were enhanced as a result of their exposure to corporate sustainability programs initiated by downstream value chain actors, especially improved social and physical infrastructure, enabling them to engage in new small business opportunities.

Extra-firm Actors and the Institutional Environment of the Palm Oil Value Chain

The palm oil value chain consists of various direct economic actors, including smallholder growers, collectors, agribusiness firms, processors, exporters, product manufacturers, supermarkets, and financial organizations. These actors and their value-adding activities constitute the fundamental input-output structure of the chain, with a buyer-driven governance structure dictated by the needs of lead firms that manifests itself in the various institutions described in the previous subsection. These economic actors are then embedded within a broader set of institutions shaped by various external stakeholders, many of whom have a major impact on oil palm cultivation at the local level (the “institutional framework” in Gereffi’s 1995 formulation). In Kapuas Hulu, the Indonesian government, operating at various scales, is clearly an important driver of this broader institutional framework and acts to either promote or inhibit the spatial expansion of plantations. Meanwhile, various environmental and conservation interests, including international NGOs, have performed a further critical role in bringing public attention to the damaging environmental impacts of the palm oil industry, and their actions, agendas, and interests are reshaping the way smallholders engage with the palm oil sector and their ability to develop their own livelihood trajectories.

J. Ribot (1998) emphasized how state institutions shape access to resources, which in turn influences profit distribution along a value chain. In Kapuas Hulu, there are various state actors—including the local government, national and provincial land agencies, financial regulators, and conservation agencies—that shape the contours of industry expansion. Principal amongst these state actors’ roles is allocation of land access to preferred economic actors, where Badan Pertanahan Nasional (National Land Agency, BPN), agricultural authorities (through Permentan No. 98/2013, for example), and the local government are all pivotal. National and local authorities facilitate the expansion of oil palm cultivation through improving labor supply (including through transmigrasi schemes) and by providing subsidies, loans, agricultural extension services, and infrastructure development.

Plantation expansion has been a key pillar of state policies through which to promote agricultural modernization in border areas such as Kapuas Hulu, further encouraging large-scale appropriation of land resources (Hasudungan and Neilson 2020). These state interventions are mediated through local government agencies such as Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah (Regional Development Planning Board, BAPPEDA), which also oversees the spatial planning process. In Kapuas Hulu, agribusiness firms actively negotiated with local authorities, such as BAPPEDA, to acquire land for oil palm development, due to such authorities’ influence over local land use decisions.

BPN is the only state institution legally allowed to issue HGUs in Indonesia, although if the lease area is below 1,000 hectares, authority falls upon the provincial land agency. Prior to gaining concession rights, firms are legally required to negotiate with local communities about their proposal to establish a plantation. In these situations, state agents often view swidden cultivation negatively while embracing and supporting the need to develop modern, large-scale plantations. A frequent problem is that state agents overlook the informal, customary rights of swidden cultivators. Certain representatives of the state were quite explicit about their attitudes toward customary rights, which were seen to be subservient to state claims over land:

Here [West Kalimantan], customary rights do not exist. These would require satisfying formal requirements, such as the presence of local customary and collective rights. In fact, these cannot be observed—they are just able to claim access to sacred forests to collect local resources. The firm was granted the [legal] concession based on the prior legal status of that being state land. (Interview with a staff member of the West Kalimantan Provincial Land Agency, Pontianak, 2016)

Furthermore, to discourage swidden farmers’ control over their swidden territory, the state imposed various rules to restrict their farming practices, such as demarcating the land as state land where legal sanctions could be imposed on any parties carrying out swidden burning. In Village C, environmental policies were being pursued on such “state land,” with many Dayaks now reluctant to undertake swidden planting. Such policies tend to create a regulatory dichotomy between state land and freehold land, which implicitly suggests an absence of informal rights or customary tenure. This false dichotomy has contributed to multiple conflicts, competing claims, and ultimately the ability of firm interests to access land at relatively low cost.

In 2015 a presidential decree4) established an independent authority, directly under the high-profile coordinating minister for economic affairs and known as Badan Pengelola Dana Perkebunan Kelapa Sawit (Palm Oil Fund Management Agency, BPDPKS), to essentially channel loans and other support to the palm oil sector. It was an extension of a previous program to provide micro-credit to smallholders. BPDPKS is financed from an industry levy imposed on palm oil exports, and in return it provides subsidized loans through state-owned banks and other support for research and development and replanting. Despite government claims that the fund would support smallholder farmers (Dara Aziliya 2016), in the Kapuas Hulu case study sites at least, funds were channelled primarily into “plasma plots” that had long been under the indirect control of large firms rather than independent smallholders. Plasma plots refer to smallholdings surrounding a larger “nuclear” estate that are compelled to sell their produce to the estate. Most of the actors provided with financial assistance were finance organizations, such as local banks and credit unions, that channelled the funds to farmers for accessing fertilizers, herbicides, and motorcycles (for transporting fruit).

Agricultural assistance is provided also through the Directorate General of Estate Crops, which in 2016 provided the local community in Village B with planting material and fertilizers through sporadic projects. The local agricultural development office is also a conduit for the distribution of subsidized fertilizer, formally intended for use on local food crops.5) This subsidized fertilizer is widely used for oil palm, even if it is accessed through food crop farmer groups. A government program to issue “fertilizer cards” in 2018 to prevent such misallocation largely failed, and subsidized fertilizer scarcity is an ongoing problem in Kapuas Hulu, leading to hoarding and illegal sales by traders. Swidden farmers are generally ineligible to access subsidized fertilizers.

In contrast, nongovernmental organizations link oil palm expansion with the loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the pollution of soils and waterways (Levang et al. 2016). These NGOs, furthermore, expand their focus to highlight negative social impacts in order to generate broader public opposition. In Silat Hilir, agribusiness firms were accused by one international NGO of exploiting child labor and paying low salaries while destroying rain forests and orangutan habitats (Greenpeace 2017). This public opposition has included criticism of financial institutions for unethical investments in the palm oil sector. For instance, Chain Reaction Research (2017) highlighted the critical role played by banks in financing oil palm expansion, claiming that NGO pressure on financiers had resulted in the latter’s adoption of more stringent environmental and social policies.

Environmental organizations thereby also actively reconstruct the institutional environment of the chain at various scales. At the local level, NGOs have worked with some villagers to oppose oil palm and successfully reshape local opposition toward its expansion (Acciaoli and Dewi 2016). In Village B the influence of NGOs was exerted through engagements between village activists and NGO staff, where the latter actively urged local villagers to reject oil palm expansion. Community members in one village received pamphlets from a Jakarta-based NGO about the negative impacts of palm oil, which identified the lack of employment and dispossession resulting from palm oil development:

Oil palm plantations destroy local livelihoods. The local community has been cultivating food crops for hundreds of years. Rotation and swidden cultivation in particular has allowed for the regrowing of forests. Palm oil development erased that subsistence food and other agroforestry incomes such as rattan, resin rubber, and pepper. (Local pamphlet from an NGO, NN, Embaloh Hulu, Kapuas Hulu, 2016)

Such NGOs tend to present villagers as having lived in harmony with the environment as ecologically “noble savages” prior to the introduction of oil palm, and as being powerless to resist the changes enacted upon their livelihoods (as described also by Levang et al. 2016). In Kapuas Hulu an influential NGO, Lanting Borneo, worked with around 24 local communities; its discourse emphasized a dichotomy between oil palm development and the interests of the “customary community”:

Currently, we advocate the endorsement of customary rights in Kapuas Hulu. With regard to palm oil development, we ask the customary community to calculate the costs and benefits of accepting palm oil development. We can conclude that the customary community received only 0.1 percent, yet they lost their rights for 35 years along with their rubber. In fact, by working in their rubber fields they can use this cash income for their daily shopping needs. (Interview with DU, head of a local Kapuas Hulu NGO, Putussibau, 2016)

This approach, where environmental activists advocated protection of customary rights, gained favorable traction among local communities. Nonetheless, the inability of NGOs to differentiate between oil palm as a smallholder crop (grown on terms set by community members) and large-scale oil palm plantations meant that they often distanced themselves from prevailing community interests (Levang et al. 2016). In the pamphlet disseminated by activists, oil palm was linked to labor exploitation:

In the Indonesian palm oil sector, labor rights such as decent pay, freedom, and their ability to negotiate are suppressed. Agreements and expectations from palm oil firms about employment are rarely met. Many people face a worse situation than before the arrival of oil palm. (Local pamphlet from an NGO, NN, Kapuas Hulu, 2016)

This argument seemed to ignore the reality of active community participation in the palm oil sector across Kapuas Hulu, both as smallholders and as plantation workers, and the mutual existence of palm oil laboring and swidden farming. From another perspective, the oppositional stance taken by activists tended to raise local expectations about the prospects of alternative livelihood improvements, which were rarely realized in practice (Acciaoli and Dewi 2016). NGO activists in Putussibau, for instance, promoted swidden cultivation and rubber as a way to sustain livelihoods, as presented in a local seminar: “[Rubber is] a founding local livelihood. While the local community shifts to other crops, rubber plays an important role to sustain household economies. Rubber is the social capital for local development” (Swandiri Institute in the BAPPEDA office of Putussibau, April 19, 2016).

While activists insist on the economic and social viability of rubber, the local community views it as having declining importance and (at least at the time of fieldwork) being far less important than either pepper or oil palm. Farmers tended to harvest rubber only during periods when they urgently needed cash, as suggested by one farmer:

Even though I have rubber, I have not yet tapped it. These days I am more comfortable cultivating padi (swidden) and working as an oil palm laborer. . . . I follow other people to work as an oil palm laborer . . . working in palm oil mills is not complicated, just chopping down [trees]. Previously, I got rid of the [rubber] bark and would harvest it . . . but today I am chopping it down. (Respondent TT, Iban, Village B, 2016)

Indeed, aspirations and monetary needs in West Kalimantan had been growing, and this resulted in greater interest in education, health care, and goods such as motorbikes and electronic equipment (Levang et al. 2016). Involvement in the palm oil economy appeared to offer realistic opportunities to meet these desires and needs through increased involvement in the cash economy. In areas that had rejected oil palm cultivation, such as the communities surrounding the buffer conservation areas of Embaloh Hulu and Batang Lupar subdistricts, local people were frequently confused about what livelihood alternatives could be realistically pursued given broader structural constraints. In these communities, which had closer relationships with various environmental activists from Jakarta and Putussibau, local people were more likely to complain about their economic situation and the difficulties they faced in meeting their basic needs.

At the global scale, exposure by NGOs of the relationship between deforestation and oil palm expansion has had profound effects on the institutional environment of the palm oil value chain. These include the setting up of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004 as a voluntary certification standard that has established new behavioral norms for firms seeking access to ethically aware consumers. This standard demands, amongst other social and environmental requirements, that plantation firms obtain prior informed consent from customary landholders. This has resulted in slowly shifting institutional norms on the ground in Kapuas Hulu. International finance organizations are also under increasing pressure to obtain independent verification that their investments are not contributing to environmental and social degradation. As a final example, the European Parliament responded to consumer and NGO pressure by issuing a resolution in 2017 to phase out biofuels made from palm oil, a decision that has had profound effects on trade and was, at the time of writing, strongly contested by the Indonesian government.

It can be seen that the broader institutional framework of the palm oil sector, most notably the influence of the state and environmental NGOs, created conditions that influenced—sometimes in contradictory ways—the nature of community engagement with the sector. In some instances these institutions provided opportunities for positive engagement that could be strategically leveraged by individuals and organizations, while at other times they could shut down negotiations. Furthermore, these institutions were often powerfully reinforced through the discursive interventions of these actors in a battle for the attitudes and perceptions of local communities exposed to the palm oil economy.

Customary Institutions in Kapuas Hulu

The Ibanic Dayak community in Kapuas Hulu has complex customary cultural institutions that manage natural resources and address conflicts (Yasmi et al. 2007). For instance, in Ibanic customary culture the community lives in a longhouse consisting of 10 to 30 households, with a longhouse head called the tue rumah. During the 1950s and 1960s, Village B consisted of 12 households living in one longhouse, while Village A had 20 to 30 households in a longhouse. To demarcate the territory between longhouses, it would be customary for communally managed agroforests called tembawang to be established. The tue rumah imposed sanctions on any outsiders collecting resources without their approval, and the negotiation of territorial claims among longhouses was decided based on the negotiation between the tue rumah and higher leaders of several longhouses, known as patih.

Incorporation within palm oil value chains has been associated with a shift in preferences for individual, rather than longhouse, residency. In Village B, scarce timber resources combined with past conflicts among customary leaders also contributed to the decline of longhouse unions and their accompanying institutions. Here, the role of the tue rumah to regulate land and labor access has been diminishing, such that many Dayak communities now depend on customary decisions to be made at the higher level of patih. While longhouses are often important sites for various social gatherings (as we observed in villages where less oil palm was grown), the Iban community in Village B was not really functioning in this way, due to increased intra-community conflicts. Conflicts within Dayak communities were frequently perceived by local migrants and non-Dayaks as a sign of weak customary institutions that would increase the ability of firms to gain further access to resources.

Customary institutions once had a significant influence on the regulations of subsistence-based swidden cultivation in allocating land access and facilitating reciprocal labor exchange. For instance, villagers would obtain exclusive rights to ancestral land after it was transferred by their grandparents. Farmers would take the risk and invest their time and energy to open up forest areas for swiddening, but only after gaining local approval from the tue rumah. Clearing primary forest, in particular, posed major risks, including dangers of encountering crocodiles, sun bears, or venomous snakes. In addition, the tue rumah would also monitor labor reciprocity among the households within the longhouse, and they would impose customary sanctions on any reluctance to appropriately engage in labor exchanges.

Ibanic Dayak culture and institutions are strongly associated with swidden cultivation. M. R. Dove (1985) highlighted past studies of swidden cultivation that demonstrated its economic and cultural importance for Dayaks in terms of inheriting collective norms and ensuring food production. These cultural practices continued even as rubber became integrated as a complementary cash crop alongside a subsistence crop economy for Dayak households (Dove 2011). Nevertheless, external influences associated with oil palm development have changed local attitudes toward swidden cultivation. In the previous discussion of government institutions, national and local elites enacted regulatory interventions that restricted local swidden-linked burning practices. Their assumption was that the swidden cultivators were incapable and reluctant to participate in oil palm development. In fact, a new tentative coexistence seems to be emerging between swidden farming and oil palm at the case sites. In Village B and Village C, some farmers have largely incorporated oil palm cultivation into their swidden plots, but with a marked generational pattern. Older informants revealed their continued commitment to swidden land, while at the same time they had begun to embrace oil palm cultivation. Yet, for younger Dayaks, swidden cultivation is often seen as a mostly unproductive livelihood strategy and one with decreasing social value. The generational shift was explained by a Sebaruk farmer:

I work in a palm oil firm here. . . . I am not involved in swidden cultivation, but my parents are. However, I am involved in oil palm and rubber cultivation. The oil palm [fruit] has not yet been harvested, but the rubber has. For me, swidden cultivation is insufficient for us. (Respondent AS, Sebaruk, Village C, 2016)

Swidden cultivation is poorly valued by younger farmers due to its inability to generate significant cash income and due to the influences of urban lifestyles and mass consumerism (as also described by Cramb et al. 2009). With better formal education and training, youths are abandoning swidden farming and participating more in various livelihood activities linked to oil palm. In Village B, a 41-year-old Iban man described the process through which he abandoned swidden cultivation and embraced oil palm cultivation:

In 2013 I went to Lubok Antu to visit my relatives in Malaysia. One of them shared his story about the unpleasant experience of planting pepper, rubber, swidden, and running a local shop. A Chinese man persuaded my brother in Malaysia to plant oil palm, saying it was more beneficial than pepper. I then took 500 (oil palm) seeds. I started to plant despite the warnings of local villagers. Nowadays I no longer practice swidden cultivation, as I expect more from the oil palm harvest. (Respondent YE, Village B, 2018)

Dayaks in Village A shared similar opinions about swidden cultivation. For example, a well-educated Dayak man in his mid-40s explained how swidden cultivation had largely become irrelevant to his livelihood as he instead invested cash resources into rental properties. Another Iban man in Village A, in his mid-30s, had moved away from swidden cultivation to local trading after receiving a university education in Java. He preferred purchasing rather than growing food: “I was born here. I am a local trader but not a farmer. I purchase my own food, as I cannot depend on this local society. I purchase it from Malaysia” (Respondent J, Village A, 2016).

In Village C, Dayaks are a minority compared to Malays and other migrants, who often aggressively criticize customary swidden farming by Dayaks, which they claim is destructive and polluting. A local Malay leader explained:

I need to explain the effects to indigenous farmers. I already told them the smog will go overseas [to Malaysia]. I did not blame the swidden cultivation, but just the way land is converted through slash-and-burn practices. We observed little progress [in government attempts] to reduce slash-and-burn farming. It took two months to socialize that to farmers. (Respondent N, Village C, 2016)

A decline in customary resource tenure institutions has also facilitated a further powerful mechanism driving exclusion and unequal land possession among villagers—that of the market itself. In addition to contractual deals negotiated by firms, growing numbers of villagers from Village A and Silat Hilir have become engaged in land markets associated with oil palm, such that increasing economic differentiation has emerged. It has been reported elsewhere in Southeast Asia how the local transition to perennial cash crops resulted in an increasing pattern of individualized land tenure and the weakening of community governance (Cramb et al. 2009). This was observed, for instance, in both Village B and Village C, where customary institutions that had traditionally demarcated village boundaries based on natural signs (such as rocks, rivers, and trees) obtained from village elders were now being challenged as the physical landscape itself was transformed through oil palm. A Sebaruk man explained how he preferred using GPS and a letter of consent from the village head (Surat Keterangan Tanah, SKT) to demarcate land boundaries when purchasing swidden land from other villagers.

In addition to an increasing trend toward perennial cash crops, declining traditional practices of labor exchange have also been observed (Cramb et al. 2009). In the past, reciprocal labor exchange arrangements, known as kabanbelayan among the Iban (Sather 2006), were employed within longhouse communities to overcome labor bottlenecks during planting, weeding, and harvesting times (Dove 2011). When the arrangement was strictly enforced, not even material returns or surplus rice was allowed to be substituted for labor. In Iban culture, cooperation between local community members is particularly useful when it comes to labor-intensive activities such as felling trees and harvesting subsistence food crops (Cramb 2007).

In contemporary Kapuas Hulu, however, instead of complying with traditional labor exchange rules, many instances of labor exchange now involve monetary contributions, as reported by a Dayak man in Village C who paid IDR 80,000 per day for local assistance on his swidden, and an Iban Dayak in Village B who paid IDR 50,000 per day for outside labor to assist with the rice harvest. For perennial cash crops, labor arrangements are almost universally based on monetary exchanges; in both Village B and Village C daily labor was reportedly paid up to IDR 100,000 to harvest oil palm fruit.

Across Southeast Asia there has been a trend toward off-farm livelihood diversification, but often as part of a multipronged strategy to continue farming or as a strategy to accumulate resources and invest in larger smallholding plots (Rigg et al. 2016). Land dispossession due to plantation development has been reported elsewhere, leading to highly unequal access to land and processes of agrarian differentiation (Hall et al. 2011), such that off-farm work can even help reduce distress land sales. Similar outcomes were observed in Village B, as explained by a Dayak Iban (a single mother):

The advantage of working in palm oil mills is that I can earn money while still engaged in swidden cultivation. I work from 7 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. Afterward, I continue my swidden work. . . . Fifteen years ago, women could not seek a financial income apart from swidden cultivation. Yet I can make it to work on the palm oil plantation. (Respondent VM, Dayak farmer, Village B, 2016)

While work on the oil palm plantation did not provide the abovementioned single mother with significant money to meet all her needs, she found this work beneficial because it allowed her to flexibly meet her daily cash economic needs.

Customary institutions in Kapuas Hulu (such as those linked to swidden cultivation) once played a critical role in determining livelihood aspirations and engagement with new economic opportunities. These institutions are still important for some Dayak communities, especially the older generation, and they can be seen to have mediated the integration of these communities into the palm oil economy. Yet, over time, the influence of these institutions has tended to evolve (and indeed decline). Local institutional adaptation is a key feature of the social landscape in Kapuas Hulu and has resulted in new systems of resource access that frequently build upon past customary institutions in a largely path-dependent way. The ability of communities to draw legitimacy and strength from these institutions appears to be a key determinant of social outcomes arising from engagement with the palm oil economy.

V Conclusion

This research presents the complex multi-scalar institutional environment emerging around the palm oil value chain as it manifests itself in Kapuas Hulu. While we recognize that livelihood outcomes for rural households are often site specific, our study has highlighted the multi-scalar sets of institutions that intervene in the relationship between agrarian communities and the palm oil sector. We have further demonstrated how livelihood change and rural development outcomes can be helpfully analyzed, and indeed understood, through a global value chain lens, especially one that is sensitive to the broader institutional environment of the chain.

In this case study, large-scale oil palm development has resulted in land appropriation and the exclusion of some individuals from accessing traditional land resources. This has occurred as a result of various mechanisms, including the regulatory processes associated with spatial planning, formalizing private concessions (HGUs), constructing discursive strategies, and establishing patronage relationships with local customary elites. While local communities have, at times, been able to call on external institutions to mobilize support for their struggle against land appropriation, they are generally engaged in a negotiating space with highly unequal power relations. National and local elites have more successfully configured alternative strategies to incorporate regulations, force, discursive constructions, and market pressures to achieve access to land (to borrow from the powers of exclusion presented by Hall et al. 2011). The outcome of this process has been a large-scale landscape transformation across Kapuas Hulu away from a mosaic of forests, agroforests, and swidden land toward mostly monocultural oil palm plantations, even as this process remains incomplete.

The process of allocating large-scale concessions combines regulations and discursive narratives to accommodate the interests of lead firms in global value chains. These interests are able to concentrate land resources into their hands, or at least their supply chain, through regulatory mechanisms that ensure this is achieved at relatively low cost. They rely heavily on negotiating and networking with various national and local elites within the state apparatus who support their desire to encourage a shift away from swidden-based land practices. With such formal regulatory support, plantation firms can secure land access and exert pressure on customary institutions to facilitate resource access. The degradation of customary institutions was also influenced by competing aspirations among Dayak communities themselves to reject or accept firm land contracts, and was ultimately associated with an increase in market-based land transactions (a relatively new institution) and subsequent loss of indigenously controlled land.

While there has been a countermovement by environmental activists and other NGOs to recognize customary rights and to reject oil palm expansion, this countermovement has largely failed to consider the reality that many community members are actively embracing the crop and voluntarily engaging with the broader oil palm economy. Many swidden farmers expressed their disappointment with environmental advocacy groups, since they had been largely unable to generate alternative income-generating activities for the local community. As a result, many of these farmers have established their own oil palm smallholdings to secure a cash income. In the current broader context of the Indonesian agrarian political economy (and the institutional environment described in this article), there appears to be limited room for maneuver for many rural households beyond the palm oil sector—at least in Kapuas Hulu.

While agribusiness firms are generally able to increase their control over land through various contractual agreements, there is another associated process of establishing palm oil related infrastructure. This infrastructure development provides some (albeit limited) choice and improved access to local inhabitants, so that they can engage with the larger value chain that reaches beyond Kapuas Hulu, and often in quite beneficial ways. Local actors occupy different positions in the value chain in order to improve market access and strengthen their social and economic position. The broader market access associated with global palm oil value chain interventions encourages more local engagement with smallholding palm plantations, as found also by previous smallholding oil palm studies (Cramb 2015; Potter 2016). Our approach of examining the broader institutional environment of the GVC for palm oil generates insights into the possibilities for reforming governance structures in ways that might allow community engagement to occur on terms more amenable to community interests.

Our research findings also have implications for understanding agrarian change and rural development trajectories in Indonesia. Smallholder households are clearly not just functioning as passive objects of development assistance or corporate accumulation, but they are actively configuring new roles as producers and broader agents within the local economy. However, their attempts to assert a vision for appropriate rural development pathways in this case are ultimately dependent on their capacity to engage with, and actively reshape, the broader institutional environment of the palm oil value chain. Efforts to promote rural development should consider a much wider set of leverage points and actors embedded at different scales within an institutional environment that is continually under construction.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


Research Publications
Acciaoli, G.; and Dewi, O. 2016. Opposition to Oil Palm Plantations. In The Oil Palm Complex: Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia, edited by R. Cramb and J. F. McCarthy, pp. 327–353. Singapore: NUS Press.

Bolwig, S.; Ponte, S.; du Toit Riisgaard, L.; and Halberg, N. 2010. Integrating Poverty and Environmental Concerns into Value-Chain Analysis: A Conceptual Framework. Development Policy Review 28(2): 173–194. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7679.2010.00480.x.

Budidarsono, S.; Dewi, S.; Sofiyuddin, M.; and Rahmanulloh, A. 2012. Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of Palm Oil Production. ICRAF Technical Brief No. 27. Bogor: World Agroforestry Centre.

Chain Reaction Research. 2017. Banks Finance More Palm Oil than Investors: Investors Face Indirect Exposure. Washington, DC: Chain Reaction Research., accessed January 3, 2020.

Colchester, M.; Jiwan, N.; Andiko, M. S.; Firdaus, A. Y.; Surambo, A.; and Pane, H. 2006. Promised Land: Palm Oil and Land Acquisition in Indonesia: Implications for Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples. Moreton-in-Marsh: Forest Peoples Programme; Bogor: Perkumpulan Sawit Watch.

Cramb, R. A. 2015. Busy People, Idle Land: The Changing Roles of Swidden Fallows in Sarawak. In Shifting Cultivation and Environmental Change: Indigenous People, Agriculture and Forest Conservation, edited by M. Cairns, pp. 777–793. London and New York: Routledge.

―. 2007. Land and Longhouse: Agrarian Transformation in the Uplands of Sarawak. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Cramb, R. A.; Colfer, C. J. P.; Dressler, W.; Laungaramsri, P.; Le, Q. T.; Mulyoutami, E.; Peluso, N. L.; and Wadley, R. L. 2009. Swidden Transformations and Rural Livelihoods in Southeast Asia. Human Ecology 37(3): 323–346.

Cramb, R. A.; and Sujang, P. 2013. The Mouse Deer and the Crocodile: Oil Palm Smallholders and Livelihood Strategies in Sarawak, Malaysia. Journal of Peasant Studies 40(1): 129–154. doi:10.1080/03066150.2012.750241.

Davis, L. E.; and North, D. C. 1971. Institutional Change and American Economic Growth. London: Cambridge University Press.

Dove, M. R. 2011. The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

―. 1985. Swidden Agriculture in Indonesia: The Subsistence Strategies of the Kalimantan Kantu’. Berlin: Mouton.

Dunn, K. 2005. Interviewing. In Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography, edited by I. Hay. Second Edition, pp. 79–105. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Elmhirst, R.; Siscawati, M.; and Colfer, C. 2016. Revisiting Gender and Forestry in Long Segar, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. In Gender and Forests: Climate Change, Tenure, Value Chains and Emerging Issues, edited by C. Colfer, B. Basnett, and E. Marlene, pp. 300–318. London and New York: Routledge.

Fold, N.; and Neilson, J. 2016. Sustaining Supplies in Smallholder-Dominated Value Chains. In The Economics of Chocolate, edited by M. Squicciarini and J. Swinnen, pp. 195–212. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gereffi, G. 1995. Global Production Systems and Third World Development. In Global Change, Regional Response: The New International Context of Development, edited by B. Stallings, pp. 100–142. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

―. 1994. The Organization of Buyer-Driven Global Commodity Chains: How U.S. Retailers Shape Overseas Production Networks. In Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism, edited by G. Gereffi and M. Korzeniewicz, pp. 95–122. Westport: Praeger.

Hall, D.; Hirsch, P.; and Li, T. M. 2011. Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia. Singapore: NUS Press.

Hassler, M. 2009. Commodity Chains. In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, edited by R. Kitchin and N. Thrift, pp. 202–209. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Hasudungan, A.; and Neilson, J. 2020. Processes of Land Appropriation for Large-Scale Oil Palm Development in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Revista Nera 23(51): 366–389.

Leonald, L.; and Rowland, D. 2016. Drivers and Effects of Agrarian Change in Kapuas Hulu Regency, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. In Agrarian Change in Tropical Landscapes, edited by E. L. Deakin, M. Kshatriya, and T. C. Sunderland, pp. 91–138. Bogor: CIFOR.

Levang, P.; Riva, W.; and Orth, M. 2016. Oil Palm Plantation and Conflict in Indonesia: Evidence from West Kalimantan. In The Oil Palm Complex: Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia, edited by R. Cramb and J. F. McCarthy, pp. 283–300. Singapore: NUS Press.

Li, T. M. 2015. Social Impacts of Oil Palm in Indonesia: A Gendered Perspective from West Kalimantan. CIFOR occasional paper. Bogor., accessed January 2, 2020.

McCarthy, J. F. 2010. Processes of Inclusion and Adverse Incorporation: Oil Palm and Agrarian Change in Sumatra, Indonesia. Journal of Peasant Studies 37(4): 821–850.

―. 2006. The Fourth Circle: A Political Ecology of Sumatra’s Rainforest Frontier. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

McCarthy, J. F.; Gillespie, P.; and Zen, Z. 2012. Swimming Upstream: Local Indonesian Production Networks in “Globalized” Palm Oil Production. World Development 40(3): 555–569.

Meinzen-Dick, R. S.; and Pradhan, R. 2002. Legal Pluralism and Dynamic Property Rights. CAPRi Working Paper No. 22. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute., accessed January 3, 2020.

Neilson, J.; and Pritchard, B. 2009. Value Chain Struggles: Institutions and Governance in the Plantation Districts of South India. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Neilson, J.; Pritchard, B.; Fold, N.; and Dwiartama, A. 2018. Lead Firms in the Cocoa–Chocolate Global Production Network: An Assessment of the Deductive Capabilities of GPN 2.0. Economic Geography 94(4): 400–424.

North, D. C. 1991. Institutions. Journal of Economic Perspectives 5(1): 97–112.

―. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Potter, L. 2016. Alternative Pathways for Smallholder Oil Palm in Indonesia: International Comparisons. In Oil Palm Complex: Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia, edited by R. Cramb and J. F. McCarthy, pp. 155–188. Singapore: NUS Press.

―. 2015. Where Are the Swidden Fallows Now? An Overview of Oil Palm and Dayak Agriculture across Kalimantan, with Case Studies from Sanggau, in West Kalimantan. In Shifting Cultivation and Environmental Change: Indigenous People, Agriculture and Forest Conservation, edited by M. Cairns, pp. 742–769. London and New York: Routledge.

―. 2011. Agrarian Transitions in Kalimantan: Characteristics, Limitations and Accommodations. In Borneo Transformed: Agricultural Expansion on the Southeast Asian Frontier, edited by J.-F. Bissonnette, S. Bernard, R. De Koninck, and L. Potter, pp. 152–202. Singapore: NUS Press.

Ribot, J. 1998. Theorizing Access: Forest Profits along Senegal’s Charcoal Commodity Chain. Development and Change 29(2): 307–341. doi:10.1111/1467-7660.00080.

Rigg, J.; Salamanca, A.; and Thompson, E. 2016. The Puzzle of East and Southeast Asia’s Persistent Smallholder. Journal of Rural Studies 43: 118–133.

Sather, C. 2006. “All Threads Are White”: Iban Egalitarianism Reconsidered. In Origins, Ancestry and Alliance: Explorations in Austronesian Ethnography, edited by J. Fox and C. Sather, pp. 70–110. Canberra: ANU Press.

Schmuck, R. 1997. Practical Action Research for Change. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Yasmi, Y.; Colfer, C.; Yuliani, L.; Indriatmoko, Y.; and Heri, V. 2007. Conflict Management Approaches under Unclear Boundaries of the Commons: Experiences from Danau Sentarum National Park, Indonesia. International Forestry Review 9(2): 597–609. doi:10.1505/ifor.9.2.597.

Media Articles
Dara Aziliya 2016. BPDP-KS alokasikan dana replanting kelapa sawit minimal Rp2,5 T [BPDP-KS allocates at least 2.5 trillion rupiah of funding for oil palm replanting]. Bisnis Indonesia Daily. April 5., accessed January 2, 2020.

Paganini, Pietro. 2018. Palm Oil Free Labels a Hindrance to Sustainable Development. Jakarta Post. November 15., accessed January 2, 2020.

Corporate Reports
Golden Agri-Resources. 2020a. GAR Grievance List., accessed June 3, 2020.

―. 2020b. Home., accessed June 3, 2020.

Greenpeace. 2017. IndoAgri’s New Palm Oil Policy Wholly Inadequate, Also Leaves Out Many Salim Group Companies. March 14., accessed March 27, 2018.

IndoAgri. 2016. IndoAgri Annual Report 2016: From Seed to Success., accessed January 2, 2020.

Koperasi Sawit Mitra Gaga Begulai (KOPSA MGB); and Buana Tunas Sejahtera (BTS). 2010. Perjanjian kerjasama pembangunan dan pengelolaan dan kebun kemitraan [Contract for the development and management of partnership plantations]. Badau.

Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART). 2016. PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology Tbk Global Compact: Communication of Progress for United Nations Global Compact. April. Golden Agri-Resources, Singapore., accessed January 3, 2020.

1) We were unable to confirm with certainty the ownership status of PT BTS. However, a subsidiary of Sinar Mas Group reported (in 2018) that PT BTS was a third-party supplier to Sinar Mas, and that it was owned by the Chinese-listed Evershine Group Holdings Limited (Golden Agri-Resources 2020a).

2) Golden Agri-Resources (2020b).

3) Golden Agri-Resources (2020a).

4) Peraturan Presiden (Perpres) No. 61 of 2015.

5) Regulation of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Indonesia No. 47/Permentan/SR.310/12/2017 Regarding the Allocation and Maximum Retail Price of Subsidised Fertiliser for the Agricultural Sector in 2018.


Vol. 9, No. 3, Nuurrianti Jalli and Yearry Panji Setianto


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Revisiting Transnational Media Flow in Nusantara: Cross-border Content Broadcasting in Indonesia and Malaysia

Nuurrianti Jalli* and Yearry Panji Setianto**

*Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication Studies, Northern State University, 1200 S Jay St, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 57401, The United States of America
Corresponding author’s e-mail: nuurrianti.jalli[at]
**Departemen Ilmu Komunikasi, Universitas Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, Jl. Raya Jakarta Km 4 Pakupatan Kota Serang Provinsi Banten, Indonesia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_413

Previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content, especially in a non-Western context. This study aims to fill theoretical gaps within this scholarship by providing an analysis of the Southeast Asian media sphere, focusing on Indonesia and Malaysia in a historical context—transnational media flow before 2010. The two neighboring nations of Indonesia and Malaysia have many things in common, from culture to language and religion. This study not only explores similarities in the reception and appropriation of transnational content in both countries but also investigates why, to some extent, each had a different attitude toward content produced by the other. It also looks at how governments in these two nations control the flow of transnational media content. Focusing on broadcast media, the study finds that cross-border media flow between Indonesia and Malaysia was made possible primarily in two ways: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, and (2) legal and intended media exchange. Illicit media exchange was enabled through the use of satellite dishes and antennae near state borders, as well as piracy. Legal and intended media exchange was enabled through state collaboration and the purchase of media rights; both governments also utilized several bodies of laws to assist in controlling transnational media content. Based on our analysis, there is a path of transnational media exchange between these two countries. We also found Malaysians to be more accepting of Indonesian content than vice versa.

Keywords: Nusantara, Indonesia, Malaysia, transnational media, cross-border content, broadcast media


The effect of globalization on national media systems has encouraged various countries to reconsider the effectiveness of their media policy. While the presence of foreign media content is not new for most nations, the intrusion of material produced by other countries has long been considered a national threat (Crofts Wiley 2004; Cohen 2008). This is more so in states that aim to protect their national identities from the infiltration of foreign cultures, which are viewed as unsuitable for local audiences, via imported media content. Today, with the proliferation of the Internet, Indonesia and Malaysia are expressing concerns over the media flow from foreign countries through global channels such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Viu, among others. Leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia have raised concerns over the potential impact of loosely regulated media content on local cultural and religious values, especially content related to LGBTQA+, violence, and leftist political ideologies (Anton Hermansyah 2016; Kelion 2016; Katrina 2019).

Notwithstanding the current reality, where global media companies like Netflix have already infiltrated Malaysia and Indonesia through the Internet, this paper aims to provide a historical overview of transnational content in both countries before 2010. Since previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content (Esser and Strömbäck 2012), this paper hopes to fill this theoretical gap by providing data focusing on these two nations. More data on this topic will help to cross-examine the significance of country and regional studies from the perspective of global communication and media studies (Flew and Waisbord 2015). Additionally, this research hopes to assist in providing insights into prognosticating reactions from both governments to trends in global media consumption, based on policies implemented by both countries in the past decade.

The relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has always been defined based on the idea of serumpun (kinship), the sharing of racial and religious affinity (Islam), linguistic similarity, geographical proximity in the Malay Archipelago (or Nusantara), and a shared history (Khalid and Yacob 2012). Yet the two countries have adopted restrictive media policies toward transnational/foreign media content from each other—along with other countries in the region. Cross-border flow of media content eventually became a political debate in Indonesia and Malaysia (Mohamad Rizal 2010), but what influenced the laws and regulations put in place to deal with this issue remains unanswered. Thus, we argue that comparing the media regulations between Indonesia and Malaysia would further explain what factors determined their decisions in media policy-making processes, especially their critical stance toward Western media content. We also look at the media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia and investigate the channels of transnational media in these two states in the decades up to 2010. Finally, this study also explores factors influencing the acceptance of cross-border media content in both countries.

For this study we used a historical method, focusing on the comparison of media policies in Indonesia and Malaysia and how these countries developed their strategy on the flow of transnational media content. Among the secondary data we used were past publications, government reports, as well as online databases. This paper aims to answer three research questions: (1) How was the practice of transnational media content flow in Indonesia and Malaysia before 2010? (2) How did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia control transnational media content? (3) What factors influenced the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries? The discussion is focused on broadcast media before 2010. It is essential to also understand that, despite the objectives, this paper does not aim to measure the acceptance level of media content in Malaysia and Indonesia. We aim to provide insights on matters related to the practice of transnational media flow and government approaches to cross-border content, and to explore potential factors influencing the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries.

Globalization and Transnational Media

With globalization, societies are becoming more transnational. Globalization also creates problems that cannot be handled at the level of nation-states, and this forces governments to think at the supranational level (Kearney 1995). Globalization can be illustrated by the increasing cross-border activities, from interactions among people from different parts of the world through social media platforms to people in different locations enjoying similar content provided by global media-services providers like Netflix. While these transnational phenomena cannot be simplified as logical consequences of the increasing popularity of global media widely accessed by global audiences, it is somewhat difficult to diminish the impact of media on the advancement of globalization. As a result, the transnational flow of media content can also be seen as one of the effects of globalization.

Edward Herman and Robert McChesney (2004) explained that significant changes are taking place within society and in our relationship with media due to the influence of global media. These changes include increasing cross-border flows of media content as well as a growing number of transnational media organizations. However, the authors also warned of the negative consequences of global media, mainly an increase in commercialization and centralized control over media. On the one hand, thanks to the globalization of media, many people in underdeveloped countries can easily watch high-quality programs produced by television stations in developed nations. On the other hand, the infiltration of transnational media content, mostly from Western countries, is seen as a threat to national cultures. Even the dominance of news content from the Western world through global media into Third World countries like Malaysia and Indonesia has often been perceived as an attack on the free flow of information (McBride 1980). Additionally, within the perspective of cultural imperialism, the international flow of communication is seen as favoring industrialized nations and threatening sociocultural values of developing countries (McBride 1980; Kraidy 2002). In some states, foreign television programs have been accused of promoting consumerism (Paek and Pan 2004). Even though policy makers in different countries have varying attitudes toward the presence of global media, governments in many developing nations tend to exhibit hostility toward unwanted transnational media content.

One of the most interesting debates concerning the threat of global media and transnational flows of communication took place during the UNESCO meeting in Kenya in 1973. During the initiation of the New World Information and Communication Order, a debate session hosted at the UNESCO meeting, some countries argued over whether the advancement of transnational media flows would be positive. According to Marwan Kraidy (2002), Western countries, which had more advanced media industries, argued that the free flow of information should be seen as positive, while the other nations did not agree and were afraid that liberalization of the flow of information would benefit only Western countries (McBride 1980). Even today it is argued that there is an imbalance in the transnational flow of information, especially since media content tends to flow from developed nations to developing ones.

There have been several attempts to define the term “transnational media.” For example, Leo Gher and Kiran Bharthapudi (2004) defined it as “communication, information or entertainment that crosses international borders without the regulatory constraints normally associated with electronic media.” Other scholars have explained the different types of transnational media. Michael Brüggemann and Hagen Schulz-Forberg (2009) categorized it into four types: (1) national media that has a cross-border mission, (2) international media, (3) pan-regional media, and (4) global media as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1 Types of Transnational Media



Diplomatic Relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia

The diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia has existed for several decades, since the time of Malaya’s independence in 1957 (Muhammad 1964; Malaysia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2015). However, this relationship has not always been stable and is bittersweet. When Malaysia was formed (through the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak) in 1963, Indonesia, led by President Sukarno, was not happy with the idea. The Indonesian government’s opposition to the formation of Malaysia led to a violent conflict, better known as Konfrontasi, that lasted three years—1963–66. According to James Mackie (1974), this diplomatic dispute was an undeclared war, with most of the action occurring at the border between Indonesia and East Malaysia in Borneo; it included restrained and isolated combats and was most likely driven by Sukarno’s political purposes. However, Konfrontasi ended with Indonesia finally acknowledging the formation of Malaysia.

In more recent times, tensions between these two countries expanded to issues of territorial boundaries, Indonesian illegal immigrants, ill treatment of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, human trafficking, and the infamous annual forest fires in Indonesia that resulted in a terrible haze over Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore for more than a decade from the mid-1990s (Kanapathy 2006; Kompas 2007 in Heryanto 2008; Killias 2010; Elias 2013). There were also several disputes between these countries over ownership of items of cultural heritage, such as the Pendet dance, folk songs like “Rasa Sayang” and “Terang Bulan,” and wayang kulit shadow puppetry (Chong 2012). However, despite the endless conflicts between these two countries, governments on both sides worked hard to arrive at a better understanding and a more stable diplomatic relationship. This could be seen through the efforts by both governments to strengthen bilateral ties. In 2018, during a diplomatic visit to Indonesia by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, he and Indonesian President Joko Widodo pledged to improve the relationship between their countries and focus on resolving outstanding border issues, enhancing protection and welfare for migrant workers, and potentially reviving the old plan of an ASEAN car project (Chan 2018).

Media in Indonesia and Malaysia

As in many Southeast Asian countries, the broadcasting system in Indonesia was introduced during the colonial period. Under Dutch colonial rule, radio was used to relay messages from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies as well as provide entertainment for colonial elites (Kitley 2014). When Japan took over, radio became a propaganda tool for the colonizers, with Japanese programs delivered to local audiences. When Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, radio eventually became the primary tool to broadcast nationalistic and revolutionary messages around the country. Once the national radio system became more established, the Indonesian government set up a national television network, Televisi Republik Indonesia (TVRI), in August 1962 through the Decree of the Minister of Information No. 20/1961. The initial reason for this was that Sukarno, the Indonesian president at the time, wanted to deliver the image of Indonesia as a modern country to the whole region (Kitley 2003). As the host of the Asian Games in 1962, Indonesia wanted to broadcast this sporting event to other Asian countries transnationally. However, after the Asian Games TVRI suffered a lack of funding, which resulted in the discontinuation of the network (Kitley 2014). Consequently, TVRI was overwhelmed by American television programs: it was much cheaper to broadcast those than to produce local programs.

Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, who overthrew Sukarno in 1965, enjoyed his control over the country’s broadcasting system. He exercised powerful control over the media in general, mainly through “licensing mechanism, media ownership regulation, paper distribution, media associations, Press Council membership and so on” (Agus Sudibyo and Patria 2013, 258). He prohibited broadcast media from delivering political messages, which in turn encouraged the growing popularity of entertainment content. Music, both local and Western, dominated radio shows at that time. While Suharto still allowed national television to broadcast limited transnational programs, such as American TV shows, he prohibited TVRI from airing advertisements over concerns that television commercials might promote consumerism (Ade Armando 2011). The Indonesian government tended to be permissive with imported programs due to business reasons. However, on some occasions government officials still warned the public not to be influenced by Western cultures that were promoted through foreign television programs.

Indonesia’s first private television network, Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia (RCTI), was introduced in the late 1980s. One of the reasons why Suharto permitted a private television network was to distract Indonesian viewers from foreign broadcasting (Ade Armando 2011). It seems that the increasing use of satellite dishes at that time encouraged local audiences to access international broadcasts illegally. Through shared signals from a satellite dish, even people in a small village could watch overseas television programs that were not available on local broadcasting channels. Unable to prohibit the use of satellite dishes, the government issued an “open skies” policy and legalized the use of parabola satellites, but many people still used them to access foreign channels (Sen and Hill 2006). Therefore, rather than further control the use of satellite dishes, which was seen as impractical, the government tried to attract local audiences by introducing private television channels.

The strict Suharto government finally fell after the countrywide Reformasi protest movement in 1998. In the aftermath of Suharto’s defeat there was media liberalization, which allowed the growth of press freedom and creativity (Kakiailatu 2007). Films that were deemed as sensitive or critical of the government were publicly broadcast, and various new creative products could be shared with international audiences. However, some critics argued that although there were improvements in terms of cultural expression, some media content was still heavily censored (Sen and Hill 2006), such as pornography, extreme violence, and content deemed too critical of the Indonesian government or its policies.

In Malaysia, too, the media was tightly controlled by the ruling power. The government or its affiliated companies owned broadcasting stations, especially during the Barisan Nasional (BN) government and its predecessor Parti Perikatan government from the country’s independence in 1957 until 2018. This resulted in minimal media freedom in the country and not much variety in media content available to the public (Kim 2001; McDaniel 2002; Mohd Sani 2004; George 2006; Iga 2012; Willnat et al. 2013). It also led to media monopoly. In addition to free-to-air (public) channels such as RTM1, RTM2 (operated by the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia), TV3, NTV7, 8TV, and TV9 (operated by the government-affiliated Media Prima Berhad), the other media giant in the country was—and is—the sole satellite television service provider, Astro, owned by Astro Malaysia Holdings Berhad. Unlike free-to-air channels, Astro satellite service offers 170 television channels and 20 radio stations that include all free-to-air channels along with international channels such as HBO, Cinemax, and Fox (Astro 2019).

Over the years Astro has received multiple criticisms not only from subscribers but also from local politicians, even though it provides so many interesting channels (Khairil Ashraf 2014).1) Subscribers’ complaints usually concern what they consider unnecessary fees for the average service that Astro provides, with constant disruptions especially during the monsoon season. Other complaints involve excessive advertising—showing Astro’s obvious capitalistic motives rather than a desire to provide excellent service to customers. Despite the negative feedback about Astro since it began broadcasting in 1996, the satellite service provider has never had serious competition in the market. With strong demand for a variety of channels, the people have only one legal option for satellite service—although many, especially in the rural areas, have opted to purchase unregistered illegal satellite dishes. Using such satellite dishes, they can receive multiple channels from outside the country without having to pay monthly fees; plus the content is not filtered by any government body, which allows users to enjoy original uncensored content.

Malaysia has always been strict when it comes to filtering media content from foreign countries, particularly content originating and produced in Western nations. Media content that is seen as inappropriate, especially opposing Eastern and Islamic cultures and values, is banned from public viewing. The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia under the Ministry of Home Affairs plays a vital role in deciding what content can be broadcast in the Malaysian media. Film censorship laws, specifically the Film Censorship Act 2002,2) not only filter and oversee exported content but also oversee the production and showing of local films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). According to Wan Amizah Wan Mahmud (2008), the censorship system in Malaysia was not initially created by the Malaysian government per se but was one of the effects of British colonization. The British, according to Paul O’Higgins (1972), introduced such a policy in order to uphold and defend their dignity as masters in the occupied territory—which at the same time instilled the idea of censorship among local leaders as one of the ways to maintain their own status as the highest class in the societal hierarchy. It is believed that the main legacy of the British Empire in the field of media was not the craft of producing films, but the outline of the censorship system (Van der Heide 2002), which can still be seen today. It is also important to note that the Censorship Board reviews not only films but also trailers, newsreels, posters, advertisements, and short comedy films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). Hence, in order for local and international producers to have their content nationally broadcast, it is crucial for them to follow the guidelines provided by the Censorship Board.3) If they fail to follow instructions, their content is banned from national broadcasting; and extreme content can also be charged under the Film Censorship Act (2002). Some of the media laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that could be used to oversee transnational media content can be referred to in Table 2 below.


Table 2 Media Laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that Could Be Used to Oversee Transnational Media Content*



Although Indonesia’s censorship laws are not as strict as Malaysia’s, Indonesia also pays careful attention to content that is considered to be against Islamic values. For instance, in 2014 both countries banned the Hollywood film Noah claiming it went against Islamic beliefs (Nathan 2014). With Islam being the official religion in both countries, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments pay extra attention to any content that can affect Islamic values. In 2019 an Indonesian filmmaker, Garin Nugroho, received death threats for his film Memories of My Body, which portrays a male dancer exploring his sexuality and gender identity. In Indonesia there is no specific law to oversee content related to the LGBTQA+ community except in Acheh. However, for the majority Muslim population in Indonesia, such “Western” content is not acceptable (Malay Mail, May 11, 2019).

Transnational Media Flow: Indonesia and Malaysia

Historically, in many countries uncontrolled media flow has been viewed as a threat to national sovereignty and has shaped media policies (Hardt and Negri 2001; Flew 2012). Information flow from developed countries into Third World countries threatens the latter as foreign media content effectively surpasses the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states, eventually challenging the notion of national sovereignty and its effectiveness. Therefore, according to scholars like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, government and politics “come to be completely integrated into the system of transnational command” (Hardt and Negri 2001, 307). In this section, we highlight some examples of how media content flows between Indonesia and Malaysia, with a specific focus on broadcast materials such as films, TV dramas, radio, and music.

Transnational media content flows between Malaysia and Indonesia mainly through two modes of transmission: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, including, especially at the national borders, the availability of illegal satellite dishes and DVD dealerships to accommodate local demand for foreign content; and (2) legal and intended media exchange (refer to Fig. 1). The intended media exchange discussed here focuses on content from Malaysia and the island of Java, where the Indonesian capital—Jakarta—is located and extensive use of the official Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Javanese language is recorded (Poedjosoedarmo 2006). Due to the diversity of languages in the Indonesian archipelago (Goebel 2013; 2016), media consumption in the country also varies (Sen and Hill 2006). Most media companies and government agencies are located in Java, but there are some also in Bali and Sumatra (Nugroho et al. 2012).



Fig. 1 Transnational Media Flow in Indonesia and Malaysia


In Indonesia and Malaysia, one of the catalysts facilitating transnational media content was satellite TV. With limited TV channels provided by the state, the use of satellite dishes was deemed necessary to increase options for media content. However, for many Indonesians and Malaysians, especially in the 1990s, satellite dishes were considered a luxury. Nonetheless, transnational satellite TV was a concern for both governments since content from the Western world was deemed a threat to the Asian values upheld by both nations (McDaniel 2002). For example, the introduction of Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV in 1991 was received differently by audiences and governments in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Many media policies were set up to handle the transnational flow of media content enabled by this new media technology.

The common view of upholding Asian values was not exclusive to Indonesia and Malaysia. In many other Southeast Asian countries with authoritarian regimes, the discourse on media policies was also centralized in censorship.4) Censorship was deemed necessary to prevent unwanted foreign media content. In the late 1990s, using the argument of preserving Asian values, Southeast Asian governments’ efforts to maintain censorship—to protect the public from “unsuitable” materials—faced an unlikely dilemma (McDaniel 2002). In Malaysia, for example, thanks to advanced media technologies—from satellite dishes to videocassettes—people living near the national borders in particular could easily access media content from neighboring countries without having to be concerned with the government’s censorship policy (McDaniel 2002). Why government policies concerning the cross-border flow of media content were ineffective during that time is yet to be fully understood.

Radio and Music

The history of the infiltration of Malaysian media content into Indonesia can be traced back to the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts in both countries in the post-independence period. Due to geographical proximity, broadcast signals from Malaysia are relatively easily received by Indonesian audiences, and vice versa. As a result, it is common for Indonesian listeners to tune into Malaysian radio stations. In West Kalimantan, for example, 18 Malaysian radio channels—including Muzik FM, TraXX FM, Klasik Nasional FM, Hot FM, Hitz FM, ERA (formerly Era FM), and Cats FM—are available for free to Indonesians living near the Malaysian border. To attract Indonesian listeners, Malaysian radio plays Indonesian pop songs.

In comparing the Malaysian music industry to the Indonesian one, it is safe to say that the latter is more advanced and prominent than the former (Heryanto 2008). Indonesian bands such as Peterpan, Sheila on 7, and Cokelat, among others, are well known among Malaysians. And in 2007, instead of choosing a local Malaysian band, Celcom—Malaysia’s largest and oldest telecommunications company—officially appointed Indonesia’s best-known music group, Peterpan, as the company’s new “power icon” as part of its marketing strategy (Heryanto 2008). Malaysia’s warm reception of Indonesian music is not recent: it goes back several decades to the success of artists such as Titiek Puspa, Lilis Suryani, and Vina Panduwinata (Sartono 2007, quoted in Heryanto 2008). In contrast to the success of Indonesian musicians in Malaysia, only a few Malaysian artists—such as Search, Siti Nurhaliza, and Sheila Majid—have managed to penetrate the Indonesian music industry (Tribune News, July 2, 2013).

The Indonesian and Malaysian governments have tried to cooperate in making collaborative broadcasts (McDaniel 1994). In the case of radio, Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) has long collaborated with Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) in broadcasting programs to reach audiences in both countries. One of the most famous such programs was Titian Muhibah (Bridge of harmony), broadcasting Indonesian and Malaysian songs to listeners in both countries. Similar programs were later introduced on television; TVRI broadcast a program with the same name in the 1990s. The television program was discontinued after Suharto resigned and the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia became troublesome. In 2013 RRI made an unsuccessful attempt to work with RTM to produce a similar show, with the primary aim being to reach out to audiences living near the national borders of these neighboring nations, including areas like Pontianak, Sintang, Entikong, and Sarawak (Tribune News, July 2, 2013). Many of the programs co-produced by RRI and RTM were cultural shows, and one of them—Bermukun Borneo—continued until 2019. Intentional or legal transnational flows of media content were considered inconsistent and profoundly influenced by the internal political conditions in each country as well as the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

TV Dramas and Films

Unlike scholarly articles on the development of Indonesian cinema, little has been written about the history of Malaysian cinema (White 1996). Scholars have suggested that Indonesian media content has long been accepted by the Malaysian public (Van der Heide 2002; Heryanto 2008). This can be traced all the way back to the 1930s through the overwhelming popularity of media content such as the film Terang Boelan (Bright moon) in Malaya and Singapore. The success of Terang Boelan inspired the production of Malay films. This could be seen through the establishment of an Indonesian film house in Singapore in 1938 to cater to local demand for Malay media content (Norman Yusoff 2019). The popularity of Terang Boelan also inspired Shaw Brothers in Singapore to set up Malay Film Productions, which became one of the successful film companies in the region.

According to William van der Heide (2002), the popularity of the Malayan movie actor P. Ramlee in the 1950s beyond the Peninsula was regarded as having the potential to boost the export of Malayan movies to Indonesia. But Indonesia reacted negatively by imposing a strict protectionist policy—demanding that three Indonesian films be screened in the Peninsula for every Malayan movie exported to Indonesia—which resulted in a limited number of Malayan films being circulated in Indonesia (Latif 1989). Despite little success, some strategies, such as inviting Indonesian directors and actors to produce Malayan movies, were used to ensure the smooth distribution of Malayan films in Indonesia (Alauddin 1992).

The introduction of television in the early 1960s also contributed to the declining popularity of Malaysian movies among local audiences. Meanwhile, due to the technical superiority of Indonesian films, Malaysian viewers became more interested in their neighboring country’s films. Providing Malaysian audiences with Malay-language content, Indonesian movies of various genres—from action to dangdut musicals—became more popular in the 1970s (Sirat 1992). Even Perfima—the film company set up by P. Ramlee and a few others—initially imported popular Indonesian films before it produced local content (Van der Heide 2002).

In the 1980s Indonesian films could be accessed via state-owned channels operated by RTM, through programs such as Tayangan Gambar Indonesia (Indonesian film show) on TV1. At the same time, locally produced media content was shown on programs such as Tayangan Gambar Melayu (Malay film show). Due to the lack of local media products, RTM had to purchase rights to Indonesian films for RM3,000–5,000 from local distributors. The cost to purchase Indonesian content was considered reasonable to fill in the vacant slots on RTM TV channels. The same approach was taken by TV3, a private TV channel that was established in 1983 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). TV3 at that time, aware of the trend, also featured Indonesian films alternately with Malay films through its program Malindo Theater (Norman Yusoff 2019).

In the early 2000s, some of the Indonesian films popular in Malaysia were Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s up with love, 2002), Eiffel I’m in Love (2003), Heart (2006), and Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of love, 2008). Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, which was released in Malaysia in 2003, received positive feedback, especially from young adults. Observers of the local art scene posited that the film contributed to the emergence of a subculture centralized in Indonesian poetry in Malaysia. In 2016 a prequel of the movie, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2, was released in the Malaysian market, 13 years after the release of its predecessor. Recorded as the highest-grossing Indonesian movie in Malaysia, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 reaped more than RM2.5 million in box office takings within a week and surpassed RM4 million revenue after its 12th day of screening (Chua 2016a; 2016b).

Indonesian TV dramas, better known as sinetrons, also became popular in Malaysia. According to Josscy Aartsen (2011), the popularity of Indonesian media content as an official import to Malaysia was initially due to cheaper copyrights compared to Western media content, especially during the financial crisis in the 1990s. The overwhelming acceptance of Indonesian sinetrons led to the establishment of exclusive slots on Malaysian TV networks. For example, in 2006 TV9—a channel under Media Prima, one of the largest media agencies in Malaysia—dedicated a daily slot to broadcast Indonesian TV dramas (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). This was seen as an effort to compete with other TV stations that were also actively broadcasting Indonesian sinetrons. Some Indonesian dramas were hugely popular among Malaysian viewers: for example, Kiamat Sudah Dekat (The end is near, 2003) had a viewership of over 1 million. And Mutiara Hari (Pearl of the day), which was initially released on SCTV in Indonesia in 2005, had a viewership of 1.6 million on TV9 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). Tabulated in Table 3 above are some of the Indonesian sinetrons and films broadcasted in Malaysia over the years.


Table 3 Some Indonesian Sinetrons and Films in Malaysia



Unlike the penetration of Indonesian films into Malaysian media, Malaysian media content was not well received in Indonesia (Van der Heide 2002). This could have been due to a few factors, such as the plethora of choices within Indonesia and slower development of the entertainment industry in Malaysia. According to Khairi Ahmad (1988, 9), at least in the 1980s, Indonesian audiences found that Malaysian films were not as attractive as local content or other foreign films. Some Malaysian films that succeeded in breaking into the Indonesian market were those by P. Ramlee, such as Seniman Bujang Lapok (The three bachelor artists), Nujum Pak Belalang (Pak Belalang the necromancer), Bakti (Services), among others (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Bakti, which was released in 1950, received a particularly overwhelming response from the Indonesian public due to the widespread publicity provided by newspapers in Singapore such as Utusan Melayu, Utusan Zaman, and Mastika (Sahidan Jaafar 2019; Abdullah Hussain 2003):

The Oranje Theater was a first-class stage that usually showed only big movies from the West. At the time the film Bakti was aired on the Oranje Medan Medan stage in the 1950s, some of the main streets around the theater were jammed with vehicles and humans. (Abdullah Hussain 2003, 17)

Other than films by P. Ramlee, in the 1990s other films also managed to break into the Indonesian market. One was Fenomena (Phenomenon). The success of this film was catalyzed by the popularity of the lead actor, Amy Search, who was also a member of the popular Malaysian rock band Search. In 1989, a year before the film was released in the Indonesian market, the rock band released its album Fenomena, which received overwhelming support from Indonesian audiences—over 2 million copies were sold (Raja 2017).

Various efforts to co-produce movies between the two countries were initiated after the formation of ASEAN in 1967, but they materialized only in the late 1980s. Eventually several films were produced, including the popular Irisan-Irisan Hati (Shreds of the heart) (Lim 1989). There were also successful attempts by filmmakers to incorporate celebrities from Indonesia and Malaysia in their films. For instance, Isabella (1990) was directed by the Indonesian director Marwan Alkatiri and featured the Malaysian actor Amy Search and Indonesian actor Nia Zulkarnain. Other collaborative films included Gadis Hitam Putih (The black and white woman, 1986), directed by Wahyu Sihombing, and Gelora Cinta (The surge of love, 1992) by Aziz Sattar (Norman Yusoff 2019). While such collaboration was applauded by the Malaysian film industry, it gained little interest from its Indonesian counterpart (Said 1991).

Unlike successful Indonesian sinetrons in Malaysia, only a small number of Malaysian TV shows managed to penetrate the Indonesian market. In the late 1980s there were only two notable Malaysian television shows popular in Indonesia: the soap opera Primadona (Primadonna, 1989) and the variety show Titian Muhibah (1990). One of the best contemporary examples of Malaysian media content popular in Indonesia is the animation series Upin & Ipin, by Les’ Copaque Production. The children’s show has been broadcast on the Indonesian TV channel MNCTV since 2007.

Media Piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia

Audiences in both countries also enjoyed relatively easy access to transnational media content through pirated media. In Indonesia, for example, the government found it difficult to eliminate media piracy. The development of videocassettes in the 1980s is viewed as having kickstarted media piracy in Indonesia (Rosihan Anwar 1988). Locals made copies of videocassettes in order to meet the demand for a variety of films without having to spend much money going to the cinema. The booming piracy business led to a decline in the production of Indonesian movies in the early 1980s (Rosihan Anwar 1988). New films were recorded as soon as they were available in theatres, and videocassettes of the films were promptly distributed by video rental shops. Many of the recordings were made illegally and disseminated without obtaining video rights from the producers. Efforts were made by the Indonesian government to eliminate piracy and exert more control, but no significant success was achieved (Khairi Ahmad 1988).

In the 1990s, pirated media content in most Southeast Asian countries was distributed via counterfeit VCDs or DVDs due to the lack of access to online media. Even though pirated media is illegal in Indonesia, 90 percent of the VCDs distributed in the market were pirated copies (Van Heeren 2012). Most pirated media offers relatively cheap access to transnational content. Hollywood box office movies were “often for sale on the streets before they even premiere in local theaters” (Baumgärtel 2007, 53). Pirated VCDs and DVDs also offered pornographic materials, Western music albums, and computer software and games. The only regulation that could be used to eradicate the practice of media piracy was Copyright Law No. 28/2014. However, the issue was more law enforcement than regulation.

Following the increasing penetration of the Internet in Indonesia, this newest medium has provided an alternative way for Indonesians to access transnational content. While it is true that a variety of media content from many countries is now easily available to Internet users in Indonesia, there is also a tendency to utilize this relatively cheap medium to access and distribute pirated media content. Even though the government tried to minimize online piracy through the implementation of Information and Electronic Transaction Law No. 11/2008, the government’s efforts to prevent the distribution of online pirated content seemed to focus mainly on blocking pornographic websites.

Even though censorship has been in place in Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957, citizens can bypass bans through illegal Internet downloads. Banned media content can also be purchased from pirated VCD/DVD dealers (Yow 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that even though the Malaysian Censorship Board banned 50 Shades of Grey in 2015, people in the country are able to get their hands on an illegal copy of the movie through the ever-free Internet and illegal VCD/DVD dealers. The introduction of Malaysian Copyright Act 1987 proved that the government took piracy seriously and eventually hoped to put an end to it. Unfortunately, although illegal VCD/DVD dealers have been subjected to numerous raids by the authorities, their numbers are unlikely to decrease as the demand for illegal content is very high among Malaysians. For those who have slow Internet speed, it is more practical to buy illegal copies of VCDs or DVDs from unlawful dealers at prices starting from RM10 each, with discounts available for bulk purchases. The existence of illegal VCD and DVD dealerships not only raises questions about the relevance of stringent censorship but also explains one of the ways in which transnational content can be exchanged between countries.

Satellite Dishes and Antennae to Access TV Shows and Films

As in the case of radio, which was discussed in the previous section, Indonesian television owners in Northern Sumatra and West Kalimantan were able to access Malaysian television programs due to leaks of the broadcasting signal. In the late 1980s, television programs from the Malaysian channel TV3 were so popular in Sumatra that most Indonesian audiences were not aware they were enjoying programs from another country (Sen and Hill 2006). Other than TV3, two other mainstream Malaysian TV channels were also available for free beyond the Malaysian border in West Kalimantan—RTM1 and RTM2. Malaysians living near the border also have access to a few Indonesian television channels. In Johor, for example, residents can easily watch the three oldest Indonesian channels for free without having to subscribe to any cable or satellite service. Johor is located near Singapore and Indonesia. Hence, Singaporean and Indonesian channels are easily transmitted beyond the Malaysia-Indonesia and Malaysia-Singapore borders. By purchasing a standard outdoor antenna, viewers can enjoy TPI, RCTI, and SCTV from Indonesia as well as television channels from Singapore (Mohammad Faiq 2007). This can be considered as an unintended or unintentional transnational flow of media content, since the content comes via either illegal or unofficial transmission.

Likewise, the use of parabolic antennas in rural areas is seen as an essential unofficial medium for audiences in Indonesia to obtain transnational programs, including television programs from Malaysia, and vice versa. Compared to before the early 1990s, these days the numbers of satellite dishes in the country has decreased remarkably. In 1991, to control information flows from outside the country through alternative means such as privately owned satellite dishes, the Malaysian government announced a ban on all privately owned satellite dishes. The ban was described as highly necessary and a matter of highest national unity and security and also one of the ways to preserve Malaysian morals and values (Davidson 1998). With the ban in place, the Malaysian government aimed to control the massive flow of foreign media content into the country, worrying that without censorship, “dangerous” media content could easily influence Malaysians and not only jeopardize Malaysian culture but also threaten national harmony. However, as previously discussed, by the mid-1990s Astro Holdings was given the exclusive rights to provide satellite broadcasting services in the country. Ownership of satellite receivers other than Astro’s is considered illegal without a license—and owners of such receivers without the proper documentation and permits face confiscation of equipment as well as a hefty fine if discovered.

Private enterprises attempted to further encourage cross-border content broadcasting between Indonesia and Malaysia. One of the most prominent examples was the establishment of Astro Nusantara in 2006. As Malaysia’s sole satellite television service, this company signed an agreement with a local Indonesian company to establish its business in the Indonesian media market. Unfortunately, due to a stock dispute between the two majority shareholders, Astro Malaysia and Lippo Group, Astro Nusantara was dissolved in October 2008 (Malaysia Today, May 1, 2012). There was another reason why the Indonesian government supported the disbanding of Astro Nusantara. Indonesian Member of Parliament Dedy Malik argued that the Malaysian broadcasting company violated the broadcasting rules set by Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information, especially the reciprocity clause (Tempo, March 3, 2006). Astro Malaysia was given a license to broadcast Malaysian content to Indonesian audiences, but this Malaysian satellite service did not transmit Indonesian content to Malaysian viewers.

Better Acceptance of Indonesian Content

We found that there were several reasons for the better acceptance of Indonesian media content in Malaysia than vice versa. Audiences in Malaysia found that Indonesian radio and television programs shared similar cultural values as their own; thus, it was easy for them to accept Indonesian content. Researchers such as Latifah Pawanteh et al. (2009) observed that at least for Malaysian media audiences, Asian media content such as Indonesia’s had relatable storylines and was relevant to their daily lives. The use of relatively identical language in the two countries in addition to Muslim-friendly content facilitated better acceptance of Indonesian content in Malaysia (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Moreover, since the majority of the population in both countries is Muslim, that further facilitates the flow of media between the two countries, mainly from Indonesia to Malaysia. Our analysis of media laws in both countries found that their regulations outlawed content that was deemed to be against Islamic values, such as explicit sexual content and gambling. In the case of Indonesian audiences, local media content is more popular than Malaysian content since Indonesia has a more advanced media industry and there are diverse options to choose from. Local media content is more popular among Indonesians also as it reflects Indonesian values. Some of the local media content is even produced in indigenous languages such as Javanese and Sundanese (Goebel, 2013), which makes it more appealing to local audiences (Sen and Hill 2006).

The entertainment industry in Indonesia is seen to be a step ahead of Malaysia’s. In 2017 Indonesia was the world’s 16th-biggest film market and the largest in Southeast Asian (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018). Unlike Malaysian media products, Indonesian content is not only widely accepted by a global audience, but much of its profit is derived from the local market. With a population of 241 million in 2018 (Freedom House 2019), Indonesia undeniably has a larger talent pool than Malaysia. Due to Indonesia’s large population, its media market has greater potential for distributing local products. Its large population also makes Indonesia one of the most promising markets for the entertainment business in Asia (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018; Chan 2019).

Low English proficiency among Indonesians is also deemed to be one of the factors contributing to the flourishing media industry in Indonesia. According to Itje Chodidjah, (2007) the dispersed geography of the Indonesian archipelago made it difficult to spread an English education. Low English proficiency led Indonesian audiences to prefer local rather than foreign content. Although Indonesia has diverse ethnicities and different languages, Bahasa Indonesia is the state’s officially mandated lingua franca (Rahmi 2015). Malay was used as an official language of Indonesia in 1918 (Moeliono 1993), primarily because colonial officials were concerned that if Dutch was extensively used, Indonesians would have easy access to political ideologies from abroad (Alisjahbana 1957; Lamb and Coleman 2008). In the 1920s, during the nationalist uprising in Indonesia, the nationalist movement declared Bahasa Indonesia as the language of solidarity for all Indonesians (Lamb and Coleman 2008). All these factors led to better acceptance of local media products than foreign materials and eventually contributed to the ever growing local media industry. Also, among the working class in Indonesia, local content was viewed as more relatable as it was imbued with familiar daily Indonesian values; this further contributed to the thriving entertainment industry in the state. Since the Indonesian entertainment industry was deemed good enough for Indonesians, foreign content—including that of Malaysian origin—was deemed inferior. The flourishing media industry in Indonesia provided better opportunities for the production of diverse media content than Malaysia. This was especially true after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, ending stringent control over media in Indonesia. The liberalization of the press in Indonesia resulted in the production of colorful media content that is still well received by international audiences, including Malaysians.


Our findings revealed that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments paid more attention to the flow of Western media content than to content from neighboring countries that shared the same religion and cultural values. As illustrated previously, hostility toward Western content could be seen through a more stringent body of laws in both countries prohibiting—often through censorship—materials that went against local norms (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). At the same time, there is no record of an aggressive approach having been taken by either government when dealing with the illegal transmission of media content between these two countries, particularly near the border. Other than concerns over different religious and cultural values, governments were also concerned about the introduction of a consumer culture and liberal political ideologies from the West. Therefore, Western media content was more closely monitored and controlled through stringent media laws and policies (Ade Armando 2011). Such media content was viewed not only as an economic threat but also as a potential threat to national security.

As for the transnational flow of content between Indonesia and Malaysia, minimal documentation has been found to indicate that there were extensive official media exchanges between these two countries. In fact, scholars such as Van der Heide (2002) posited that scholarly discussion on the film industry in Asia often overlooked the Malaysian context. Based on our exploratory analysis, there was a lot of Indonesian entertainment content in Malaysia but minimal Malaysian content in the Indonesian media space. This was due to factors such as a better-developed entertainment industry in Indonesia, and a freer media environment in Indonesia, particularly after the fall of Suharto. Indonesians were found to prefer local rather than Malaysian content due to factors such as language and the sense of familiarity with Indonesian values depicted by locally produced broadcast media.

Also, minimal records have been found to indicate that either country paid close attention to media flows, especially the illicit transnational media flows in border areas. Not much action was taken to control the cross-border flow of content. It can be assumed that content from both countries was considered “safe” due to the countries’ common shared cultural and religious values; also, illegal content could flow transnationally only near the national border areas, and no significant amount of exchange was reported. Illicit cross-border broadcasts and content are believed to spread not much farther than the border areas of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Since the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has been somewhat unstable for several decades, media exchange may be seen as one way to rekindle the relationship. It is surprising that although several efforts have been made to improve the relationship, especially through strategic agreements, minimal efforts have focused on extensive media exchange. In the 1990s the two countries tried to work together on programs like Titian Muhibah, but since then no similar efforts have been made. Increased media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia can serve the diplomatic purpose of improving the bittersweet bilateral relationship between these Nusantara countries.

Since this study was conducted through historical research, it is exploratory in nature. Minimal resources were found about official media exchanges between Indonesia and Malaysia. The issue can be further explored through interviewing media providers from both countries to see whether there are any bilateral agreements on broadcast media content. Research can also focus on interviewing diplomats from both countries to better understand the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia. Through these interviews, researchers will be able to gain updated information on Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s media exchange initiatives and better understand how media exchange can serve as a diplomatic approach. Since there is also minimal proper documentation on unintended transnational media flows near the national borders, it would be best to explore this topic by interviewing and requesting official documentation from the relevant authorities in both countries.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


Articles and Books
Aartsen, Josscy Vallazza. 2011. Film World Indonesia: The Rise after the Fall. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Utrecht University.

Abdullah Hussain. 2003. Liku-Liku hidup P. Ramlee. Simposium seniman agung P. Ramlee [The life of P. Ramlee: P. Ramlee. Great artist symposium]. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya.

Abdul Wahab, Juliana; Kim Wang Lay; and Syed Baharuddin, Sharifah Shahnaz. 2013. Asian Dramas and Popular Trends in Malaysian Television Industry. Jurnal Komunikasi: Malaysian Journal of Communication 29(2): 159–174.

Ade Armando. 2011. Televisi Jakarta di atas Indonesia: Kisah kegagalan sistem televisi berjaringan di Indonesia [Jakarta Television above Indonesia: A Story of the failure of the networked television system in Indonesia]. Yogyakarta: Bentang Pustaka.

Agus Sudibyo; and Patria, Nezar. 2013. The Television Industry in Post-authoritarian Indonesia. Journal of Contemporary Asia 43(2): 257–275.

Alauddin, Raja Ahmad. 1992. A Brief History of the Development of Indonesian Films in Malaysia. In Indonesian Film Panorama, edited by Salim Said and Jason Edison Siahaan, pp. 83–87. Jakarta: Permanent Committee of the National Indonesia Film Festival.

Alisjahbana, S. Takdir. 1957. Dari perdjuangan dan pertumbuhan bahasa Indonesia [From the struggle and the growth of the Indonesian language]. Jakarta: Pustaka Rakjat.

Baumgärtel, Tilman. 2007. The Social Significance and Consequences of Digital Piracy in Southeast Asia: The Case of Independent Filmmakers. Philippine Sociological Review 55(January): 50–63.

Brüggemann, Michael; and Schulz-Forberg, Hagen. 2009. Becoming Pan-European? Transnational Media and European Public Sphere. International Communication Gazette 71(8): 693–712.

Chodidjah, Itje. 2007. Teacher Training for Low Proficiency Level Primary English Language Teachers: How It Is Working in Indonesia. In Primary Innovations: A Collection of Papers, edited by Laura Grassik, pp. 87–94. Hanoi: British Council.

Chong Jinn Winn. 2012. “Mine, Yours or Ours?”: The Indonesia-Malaysia Disputes over Shared Cultural Heritage. SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 27(1): 1–53.

Cohen, Jonathan. 2008. What I Watch and Who I Am: National Pride and the Viewing of Local and Foreign Television in Israel. Journal of Communication 58(1): 149–167.

Crofts Wiley, Stephen B. 2004. Rethinking Nationality in the Context of Globalization. Communication Theory 14(1): 78–96.

Davidson, Aaron. 1998. I Want My Censored MTV: Malaysia’s Censorship Regime Collides with the Economic Realities of the Twenty-First Century. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 31: 97–112.

Elias, Juanita. 2013. Foreign Policy and the Domestic Worker: The Malaysia–Indonesia Domestic Worker Dispute. International Feminist Journal of Politics 15(3): 391–410.

Esser, Frank; and Strömbäck, Jesper. 2012. Comparing News on National Elections. In The Handbook of Comparative Communication Research, edited by Frank Esser, Jesper Strömbäck, and Thomas Hanitzsch, pp. 289–326. New York: Routledge.

Flew, Terry. 2012. Globalisation, Media Policy, and Regulatory Design: Rethinking the Australian Media Classification Scheme. Australian Journal of Communication 39(2): 1–17.

Flew, Terry; and Waisbord, Silvio. 2015. The Ongoing Significance of National Media Systems in the Context of Media Globalization. Media, Culture & Society 37(4): 620–636.

George, Cherian. 2006. Contentious Journalism: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: Singapore University Press in association with University of Washington Press.

Goebel, Zane. 2016. Superdiversity from Within: The Case of Ethnicity in Indonesia. In Engaging Superdiversity: Recombining Spaces, Times and Language Practices, edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti, and Jan Blommaert, pp. 251–276. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

―. 2013. The Idea of Ethnicity in Indonesia. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies: Paper 71(1): 1–30.

Hardt, Michael; and Negri, Antonio. 2001. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Herman, Edward; and McChesney, Robert. 2004. The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism. London: Cassell.

Heryanto, Ariel. 2008. Pop Culture and Competing Identities in Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-authoritarian Politics. New York: Routledge.

Iga Tsukasa. 2012. A Review of Internet Politics in Malaysia. Asian Politics and Policy 4(1): 137–140.

Kakiailatu, Toeti. 2007. Media in Indonesia: Forum for Political Change and Critical Assessment. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 48(1): 60–71.

Kearney, Michael. 1995. The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 547–565.

Khairi Ahmad. 1988. Perkembangan filem Malaysia di negara sekitar [The development of Malaysian films in neighboring countries]. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Empayar.

Khalid, Khadijah Md.; and Yacob, Shakila. 2012. Managing Malaysia–Indonesia Relations in the Context of Democratization: The Emergence of Non-state Actors. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 12(3): 355–387.

Killias, Olivia. 2010. “Illegal” Migration as Resistance: Legality, Morality and Coercion in Indonesian Domestic Worker Migration to Malaysia. Asian Journal of Social Science 38(6): 897–914.

Kim Wang Lay. 2001. Media and Democracy in Malaysia. Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture 8(2): 67–88.

Kitley, Philip. 2014. Television, Nation, and Culture in Indonesia. Athens: Ohio University Press.

―. 2003. Closing the Creativity Gap – Renting Intellectual Capital in the Name of Local Content: Indonesia in the Global Television Format Business. In Television across Asia, edited by Michael Keane and Albert Moran, pp. 150–168. New York: Routledge.

Kraidy, Marwan M. 2002. Globalization of Culture through the Media. In Encyclopedia of Communication and Information, edited by Jorge Reina Schement, pp. 359–363. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Lamb, Martin; and Coleman, Hywel. 2008. Literacy in English and the Transformation of Self and Society in Post-Soeharto Indonesia. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 11(2): 189–205.

Latif, Baharuddin. 1989. Hubungan Indonesia/Malaysia di dalam pameran filem [Indonesia/Malaysia relations in film exhibition]. In Cintai filem Malaysia [Love Malaysian films], edited by Baharuddin Latif, pp. 245–247. Hulu Kelang: Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional Malaysia [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia].

Lee Sangoak. 2007. A Longitudinal Analysis of Foreign Program Imports on South Korean Television, 1978–2002: A Case of Rising Indigenous Capacity in Program Supply. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 51(1): 172–187.

Lim, Rebecca. 1989. Penerbitan bersama Malaysia-Indonesia [Malaysian-Indonesian coproductions]. In Cintai filem Malaysia [Love Malaysian films], edited by Baharuddin Latif, pp. 211–214. Hulu Kelang: Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional Malaysia [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia].

Mackie, James Austin Copland. 1974. Konfrontasi: The Indonesia-Malaysia Dispute, 1963–1966. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

McBride, Sean. 1980. Many Voices, One World. Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. New York: UNESCO.

McDaniel, Drew. 2002. Electronic Tigers of Southeast Asia: The Politics of Media, Technology and National Development. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

―. 1994. Broadcasting in the Malay World: Radio, Television, and Video in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Norwood: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Moeliono, Anton M. 1993. The First Efforts to Promote and Develop Indonesian. In The Earliest Stage of Language Planning: The “First Congress” Phenomenon, edited by Joshua A. Fishman, pp. 129–141. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Mohd Sani, Mohd Azizuddin. 2004. Media Freedom in Malaysia. Journal of Contemporary Asia 35(3): 341–367.

Muhammad Ghazali bin Shafie. 1964. Confrontation: A Manifestation of the Indonesian Problem: Speech by Dato Mohd Ghazali bin Shafie, Permanent Secretary for External Affairs, Malaysia, at the Conference of the Junior Chamber International in Penang on 1st May, 1964. Federal Department of Information Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Lai Than Fong Press.

Norman Yusoff. 2019. Budaya filem Indonesia di Malaysia [Indonesian film culture in Malaysia]. Utusan Malaysia. June 16, p. 13.

Nugroho, Yanuar; Putri, Dinita Andriani; and Laksmi, Shita. 2012. Mapping the Landscape of the Media Industry in Contemporary Indonesia. Manchester: Centre for Innovation Policy & Governance.

O’Higgins, Paul. 1972. Censorship in Britain. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Paek Hye-Jin; and Pan Zhongdang. 2004. Spreading Global Consumerism: Effects of Mass Media and Advertising on Consumerist Values in China. Mass Communication & Society 7(4): 491–515.

Pawanteh, Latifah; Rahim, Samsudin A.; and Ahmad, Fauziah. 2009. Media Consumption among Young Adults: A Look at Labels and Norms in Everyday Life. Jurnal Komunikasi: Malaysian Journal of Communication 25: 21–31.

Poedjosoedarmo, Gloria. 2006. The Effect of Bahasa Indonesia as a Lingua Franca on the Javanese System of Speech Levels and Their Functions. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2006(177): 111–121.

Rahmi. 2015. The Development of Language Policy in Indonesia. Englisia: Journal of Language, Education, and Humanities 3(1): 9–22.

Rosihan Anwar. 1988. The Indonesian Film Industry. Media Asia 15(3): 134–137.

Sahidan Jaafar. 2019. P. Ramlee cetus fenomena di Nusantara [P. Ramlee causes a phenomenon in Nusantara]. Utusan Malaysia. February 7, p. 23.

Said, Salim. 1991. Shadows on the Silver Screen: A Social History of Indonesian Film. Jakarta: Lontar Foundation.

Sen, Krishna; and Hill, David T. 2006. Media, Culture and Politics in Indonesia. Jakarta: Equinox.

Sen, Krishna; and Lee, Terence, eds. 2008. Political Regimes and the Media in Asia, Vol. 8. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sirat, Mohd. Kamsah. 1992. Indonesian Films in Singapore. In Indonesian Film Panorama, edited by Salim Said and Jason Edison Siahaan, pp. 88–91. Jakarta: Permanent Committee of the National Indonesia Film Festival.

Slater, Dan. 2010. Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Van der Heide, William. 2002. Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Van Heeren, Katinka. 2012. Contemporary Indonesian Film: Spirits of Reform and Ghosts from the Past. Brill: KITLV Press.

Wan Mahmud, Wan Amizah. 2008. Perkembangan dan pembangunan sistem dan dasar penapisan: Apakah itu cetak rompak Internet [Development of censorship system and policies: What is Internet piracy]. PhD dissertation, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Wan Mahmud, Wan Amizah; Kee Chang Peng; and Aziz, Jamaluddin. 2009. Film Censorship in Malaysia: Sanctions of Religious, Cultural and Moral Values. Jurnal Komunikasi: Malaysian Journal of Communication 25: 42–49.

White, Timothy. 1996. Historical Poetics, Malaysian Cinema, and the Japanese Occupation. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media 8(1): 1–12.

Willnat, Lars; Wong, W. Joan; Tamam, Ezhar; and Aw, Annette. 2013. Online Media and Political Participation: The Case of Malaysia. Mass Communication and Society 16(4): 557–585.

Online Sources
Anton Hermansyah. 2016. Netflix Confuses Indonesian Censorship Agency. Jakarta Post. May 11., accessed July 17, 2016.

Astro. 2019. About Astro Malaysia Holdings Bhd., accessed May 13, 2019.

Chan, Francis. 2018. Malaysia and Indonesia Pledge to Build on Strong Bilateral Ties. Straits Times. June 30., accessed December 17, 2018.

Chan, Ronald W. 2019. Investors Should Buy a Ticket to Indonesia: A Burgeoning Middle Class, and Investment and Expertise from Overseas, Are Reviving the Country’s Once-Thriving Film Sector. Bloomberg. April 6., accessed November 1, 2019.

Chua, Dennis. 2016a. AADC2, the Highest Grossing Indo Movie in Malaysia. New Straits Times. May 5., accessed October 23, 2017.

―. 2016b. “Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2” Surpasses RM4m Box Office Mark. New Straits Times. May 10., accessed October 23, 2017.

Freedom House. 2019. Indonesia Country Report., accessed November 3, 2019.

Gher, Leo; and Bharthapudi, Kiran. 2004. The Impact of Globalization and Transnational Media in Eastern Europe at the End of the 20th Century: An Attitudinal Study of Five Newly Independent States. Global Media Journal 3(4)., accessed July 17, 2016.

Jakarta Post. 2018. Indonesia among Film Markets with Most Potential in Asia-Pacific: Producer. December 14., accessed February 2, 2019.

Kanapathy, Vijayakumari. 2006. Migrant Workers in Malaysia: An Overview. In Country Paper Prepared for Workshop on East Asian Cooperation Framework for Migrant Labour. Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies. December., accessed January 13, 2007.

Katrina Khairul Azman. 2019. BN MP: LGBT and Sex Scenes on Netflix Should Be Censored for Malaysia. Says. March 28., accessed March 31, 2019.

Kelion, Leo. 2016. Netflix Blocked by Indonesia in Censorship Row. BBC. January 28., accessed May 15, 2017.

Khairil Ashraf. 2014. Bung: Astro Menipu Rakyat dan Kerajaan [Bung: Astro is deceiving the people and the government]. Free Malaysia Today. November 11., accessed March 13, 2016.

Malay Mail. 2019. Indonesian Director Calls for LGBT+ Debate after Film Ban. May 11., accessed December 2, 2019.

Malaysia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2015. Malaysia Indonesia Bilateral Relations. Embassy of Malaysia, Jakarta., accessed June 16, 2016.

Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs. 2012. Corporate Information: Lembaga Penapis Filem Malaysia [Film Censorship Board of Malaysia]. Ministry of Home Affairs., accessed October 19, 2017.

Malaysia Today. 2012. Ananda Krishnan’s No. 2 Wanted in Indonesia to Face Fraud Charges. May 1., accessed July 6, 2017.

Mohamad Rizal Maslan. 2010. Menkominfo harus waspadai siaran asing di perbatasan [Menkominfo must be aware of foreign broadcasts at the border]. Detik. February 19., accessed April 14, 2017.

Mohammad Faiq. 2007. Menikmati acara TV di Malaysia [Enjoying TV shows in Malaysia]. GRIYA MAYA FAIQ. February 2., accessed July 10, 2015.

Nathan, Fred. 2014. Malaysia and Indonesia Ban Noah Film: Film Censoring Bodies in Both Countries Said that the Portrayal of the Prophet by Russell Crowe Was against Islamic Laws. Telegraph. April 7., accessed June 16, 2016.

Raja Nurfatimah Mawar Mohamed. 2017. Album Fenomena Search diabadikan dalam piring hitam [Search’s Fenomena album is immortalized in vinyl records]. Berita Harian. April 22., accessed March 20, 2018.

Tempo. 2006. Pemerintah diminta hentikan stasiun Astro [Government orders Astro broadcasting station to shut down]. March 3., accessed October 13, 2015.

Tribune News. 2013. RRI pererat hubungan dua negara [RRI strengthens two-state relations]. July 2., accessed June 15, 2017.

Yow Chung Lee. 2015. Is the Film Censorship Board Relevant? Malaysian Insider. July 18., accessed October 18, 2017.

1) Khairil Ashraf (2014) mentions Bung Mokhtar, a local politician from Sabah.

2) The first Act to be adopted was the Cinematograph Films Act 1952 (Amendment 1966), followed by the Film Censorship Act 2002 (Act 620), which is still in force today (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

3) Decisions are made based on rules and criteria stipulated in three basic documents: the Film Censorship Act, Censorship Guidelines, and Specific Guidelines Censorship (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

4) Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and the Philippines also have media policies focused on censorship, due to their respective authoritarian governments (see Sen and Lee 2008; Slater 2010).


Vol. 9, No. 3, Fujita Wataru


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

The Rubber Boom Assemblage and Internalized Friction: Attitudes of the Government, NGOs, and Farmers in Northeast Thailand

Fujita Wataru*

*藤田 渡, College of Sustainable System Sciences, Osaka Prefecture University, 1-1 Gakuencho Naka-ku Sakai, Osaka 599-8531, Japan
e-mail: watarufujita[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_381

Northeast Thailand experienced a rubber boom that began in the 2000s with a sudden swing away from the trend toward sustainable forest management that had been widely accepted by society in the 1990s. The rapid expansion of rubber cultivation caused various ecological changes in the farmers’ living environment. Faced with environmental issues, various actors in society were reluctant to take the measures necessary to stop these changes, even when there were legal provisions to do so. Among the bureaucracy, agriculture agencies were indifferent to deforestation and, in some cases, gave subsidies to non-titled lands despite regulations against this. Conservation agencies hesitated to regulate illegal cultivation strictly in the forestlands. At the study site, the Tambon Administration Organization stressed the importance of forest conservation but never criticized or prevented rubber cultivation. Villagers reached no consensus on regulating forest clearing or herbicide use but changed their customs to allow the enclosure of non-timber forest resources in private forests. Various actors, without mutual communication, perceived a political atmosphere in which poor people’s hopes of a socioeconomic upgrade via rubber could not be denied under the conditions of electoral politics, despite environmental degradation. These were all elements of the rubber boom assemblage. The friction arising from rubber cultivation combined with anxiety regarding environmental degradation became internalized in the actors because the forces driving the rubber boom were so powerful. Therefore, at a glance, all actors suddenly seemed to become optimistic about rubber.

Keywords: Northeast Thailand, rubber boom, assemblage, social process

I Introduction

Northeast Thailand experienced a rapid expansion of rubber cultivation beginning in the 2000s. This was due mainly to the increase in the price of rubber in response to the growth of the automobile industry in emerging economies such as China and India, and the subsequent demand for tires. This rapid expansion occurred not only in Thailand but also elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as Southwest China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Despite differences in the acquisition and holding of rubber farms and the distribution of profits by country or region, a common factor in all of these areas was that previously self-sufficient areas became connected directly to the network of the global economy and industry via rubber (Fox and Castella 2013).

This rapid expansion of rubber cultivation resulted in ecological changes. The villagers acknowledged this, but they made no institutional arrangement to prevent the changes; and almost none of the environmental NGOs took action. Until extremely strong forest conservation policies were put in place by Thailand’s military government in 2014, no governmental agency took effective measures in this regard, hesitating to exercise their legal authority. All actors were seemingly optimistic about the trend of the rubber boom. A social consciousness of sustainable natural resource management grew during the 1990s, after the logging ban. Optimism about the rubber boom and ignorance of the ecological degradation caused by the expansion of rubber cultivation suddenly swung the pendulum of opinion in the other direction.

Considering the trend since the 1990s in which the government, NGOs, and local communities had been seeking sustainable forest management and usage, this sudden swing by all sectors to prioritize rubber, in disregard of the law, seemed strange. This article analyzes the rubber boom as an assemblage. The world is being ceaselessly shaped and reshaped by assemblages consisting of heterogeneous elements, either in the direction of “territorialization”—making order from the center in a segmented structured way like a state—or “deterritorialization”—deconstructing the order into a multiplicity of linear movements (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, ch. 1). Assemblages are continuously rearranged in this process (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, ch. 11).

The formation and rearrangement of heterogeneous assemblages can explain social change. In her case study of a community forestry project, Tania Li (2007) reveals the process of power formation by which outsiders intervene in local communities with a “will to improve,” by analyzing how various elements are assembled into a concrete project scheme. Michiel Köhne (2014) argues for the opposite, bottom-up direction of assemblage formation. According to him, the governance of an institute of a multi-stakeholder initiative for palm oil is formed through an assemblage of practices in a number of places, with variations somehow contradicting each other. In these ways, elements at different geographical scales interact, and these assemblages transform society as well as the assemblages themselves. Such assemblages not only exist in terms of what can be physically observed, like field-level projects, but can also be formed by human and non-human actors on a global scale (Collier and Ong 2005; McFarlane 2009).

These studies assume a human actor to be a subject or agent holding a consistent idea. However, an individual human actor can also be an assemblage of heterogeneous elements. In this article, I analyze individual human actors as assemblages, as well as social events and phenomena, including those observed in local communities and those developing on broader geographic scales. In doing so, I explain the sociological mechanism of the rubber boom.

II Rubber, the Forest, Living Environments, and Assemblage

II-1 Rubber in the Context of Forest Conservation

Until the end of the 1980s, Thailand experienced serious deforestation as a result of commercial logging and farmland expansion. The gap between forestland in a legal sense and actual forest cover increased (Uhlig 1988; Pasuk and Baker 1995, ch. 2; Fujita 2003). In the 1990s, the government took measures to resolve the problem of this gap. Although the forest department enclosed core natural forests with high conservation value in terms of biodiversity and watersheds as protected areas, patches of secondary forest near local communities where the locals exploited natural materials for subsistence were to be managed and utilized by the local communities as community forests. Degraded forestlands were transferred to the Agricultural Land Reform Office in charge of giving cultivation rights certificates to local inhabitants. Through the implementation of these policies, especially the negotiation of community forests, the significance of sustainable forest management appeared to be widely accepted within society.1)

Studies on the sociopolitical aspects of natural resource management have usually assumed that people are in a state of tension or conflict, and have analyzed the negotiations between them. Peter Vandergeest and Nancy Peluso (1995) and Peluso and Vandergeest (2001) view the history of forest policy in Thailand as “territorialization” of the forest by the state, excluding people’s access to resources.2) Thus, the forest has been a place of conflicting interests between the state seeking forest enclosure for development or conservation and the people depending on forest resources for their livelihoods, or what they call the “political forest.” Colonialistic forest policies and legal institutions sometimes caused physical conflicts, including the violent eviction of people by the government or guerrilla-like counterattacks against the state by the people. More often, however, the implementation of these policies and institutions were compromised by the decisions of field-level officers or through negotiations with local residents. Regardless, criticisms of colonialistic forest policies led to community-based natural resource management becoming a global standard and reduced conflict over resources between the state and the people.

Case studies have revealed that community-based forest management projects are crafted by outside actors via governmentality (Agrawal 2005; Li 2007). Unlike these studies, there are many cases in Thailand in which locals spontaneously initiated and practiced de facto community forest management. They later received assistance from NGOs, local academics, and forest officers to organize and institutionalize community forests with clear demarcation, written regulations, and management committees. It is true that in the process of establishing such community forests in a formal or institutionalized way, the actual design of community forests was affected by the power relationship—there were unequal amounts of expert knowledge between the locals and NGO workers or forest officials; NGO workers and officials were friendly with the locals in giving necessary advice. However, the expansion of community forests in Thailand since 1990 was fueled by the demands of locals facing resource scarcity and the necessity to protect their rights, and was approved by the Forest Department, influenced by the global trend to promote community-based resource management for sustainable use (Fujita 2011).

In the 2000s, contrary to this trend of sustainable forest usage, forests were invaded for rubber cultivation, especially in nontraditional cultivation areas such as the northeast region. The last remaining forests were converted into rubber gardens. Herbicide use in the rubber gardens polluted surrounding areas. Despite this, there were very few voices from government agencies, NGOs, or local entities demanding a halt or limit to the expansion of rubber. Society as a whole seemed to accept the rubber boom, with few conflicts between the state and rubber-growing communities.

II-2 Rubber and Agrarian Change in Northeast Thailand

Farmers in Thailand have been committed to a market economy for longer and more deeply than farmers in many other countries and areas. In Northeast Thailand, in particular, upland cash crops such as kenaf, cassava, and maize have been widespread since the 1960s (Pasuk and Baker 1995, ch. 2). Prior to the 1990s, however, cash-crop cultivation did not raise the socioeconomic status of poor Thai farmers (Rambo 2017). High volatility of crop prices, accompanied by a poor—or lacking—social safety net, kept farmers socially marginalized and economically vulnerable (Hirsch 1990). Instead, as many previous studies (Rigg and Salamanca 2011; 2015; Rigg et al. 2014; Rigg et al. 2018) have argued, migrant work in Bangkok and other urban areas, as well as various non-farm activities, were long the main sources of cash income, while farming decreased.

Since the 2000s, due to the growth of global market needs, prices of industrial crops such as rubber and cassava have remained high. I observed in this study that rubber cultivators have become rich; they are able to purchase cars, tractors, and electrical appliances as well as daily food materials. Their children are able to attend college. They have never before experienced such an economic boom. The statistics also show that the average income in Ubon Ratchathani Province, where this study is located, almost reached the national average in 2011, but the gap subsequently widened following a decline in the price of rubber (Figs. 1 and 2).



Fig. 1 Average Income: National and Ubon Ratchathani Province

Source: Thailand, National Statistical Office (1996; 1998; 2006; 2007; 2009; 2011; 2015); Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Statistical Office (2002).



Fig. 2 Price of Rubber, 1997–2015

Source: Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics (2015b).


Many previous studies that argued for agrarian change in Northeast Thailand dismissed the impact of the rise in crop price, probably because those studies were conducted in Khon Kaen and Maha Sarakham Provinces, where there was no remaining frontier land for upland crop expansion in the 1980s (Rigg and Salamanca 2011, 557; 2015, 300). However, other case studies in Khon Kaen Province reported a significant contribution of rubber cultivation to villagers’ income, for both owners of rubber gardens and hired laborers (Patarapong et al. 2011; Uraiwan and Aran 2013).

Thus, the spread of cash-crop cultivation and its economic impact have not been uniform. The study site of this article was one of the most peripheral in terms of cash-crop cultivation. Cassava cultivation spread in the 2000s, at the same time as rubber. Before that, villagers’ cash income derived mostly from migrant work in urban areas or miscellaneous wage labor around the village. Therefore, relatively rich natural forest resources were preserved, which allowed for a self-sufficient mode of life. Rubber, with its significant economic impact, not only replaced existing crop fields but also destroyed the scarce remaining natural forests.

II-3 Assemblage

These changes in rural areas of Northeast Thailand can be explained in terms of assemblages as follows: Since the 1990s, when the drastic policy change took place favoring sustainable forest management, including the establishment of community forests, the assemblage of farmers’ livelihoods involved major factors such as unstable, insufficient crop prices; non-farming activities and migrant work in urban areas; and sustainable natural resource management. In the early 2000s, this assemblage was rearranged into the rubber boom assemblage, with the increase in rubber prices. In the cultivable areas in the Northeast, many farmers planted rubber seedlings, which began to provide their main income six or seven years later and allowed the farmers to avoid migrant work. Natural resource management remained within the assemblage, but as a less important element. In this process of assemblage rearrangement, did friction arise between conflicting elements, and if so, how was it resolved? Below, I examine actors’ performances in detail, as part of a study in a village in Ubon Ratchathani Province.

III Study Site and Methodology

The arguments in this paper basically depend on field research in N village in Ubon Ratchathani Province and in surrounding villages. I have made regular visits to N and neighboring villages since 1997 and carried out ethnographic research on relationships between villagers’ livelihoods and natural resource use. The description and arguments used in this article are based mainly on ethnographic data from participant observation prior to 2015, as well as questionnaire surveys conducted in 2012 and 2015, interviews with key informants in both Bangkok and the area around N village, and analyses of documents such as newspapers and websites.

Most villagers in N and surrounding villages are Isan people. N village is located adjacent to Pha Taem National Park, established in 1991. Around the village, the land is gently sloped. The lower lands are occupied by paddy fields, while the hilly area was once cultivated for upland rice by a form of shifting cultivation that had been abandoned for decades because of reinforced forest patrols against swidden practices after the establishment of the national park. The main form of subsistence has long been paddy cultivation, while various resources for daily living have been extracted from the surrounding natural environment, such as bamboo shoots and mushrooms from the forests, fish from the streams and paddy fields, and wild animals hunted in the forests. Unlike many other villages in the Northeast, cash crops such as cassava, maize, and kenaf had seldom been cultivated until cassava cultivation began in N village and the surrounding area in the 2000s. In 1997, to secure the natural forests for sustainable use, the villagers designated the hilly forest area in the village as a community forest and institutionalized regulations and organization for its management.3)

Rubber cultivation began to expand rapidly in the village in the early 2000s, in line with the general trend in Northeast Thailand, although some farmers had practiced it before. Large parts of private forests were cleared and converted to rubber gardens as well as cassava fields.

Countrywide, about 90 percent of newly planted rubber gardens from 2003 to 2014 were converted from low-vegetation areas, probably crop fields, while only about 10 percent were converted from natural forests (Hurni and Fox 2018, 209). Sorat Praweenwongwuthi et al. (2017) reported higher percentages: 827 ha out of a total of 1,353 ha of rubber gardens planted in Mueang District between 2006 and 2010 were converted from natural forests, as were 1,312 ha out of a total of 5,498 ha in That Phom District, Nakhon Phanom Province. These data show that in some areas, conversion to rubber gardens caused much more severe deforestation compared with the general trend. Only 10 percent was enough to damage the last remaining natural forests, including rich natural ecosystems, in some protected areas.

According to a questionnaire survey in N village in 2012, 59 of 109 households had rubber gardens occupying 664 rai within the village, while in 2015, 131 of 144 households had 973.3 rai.4) In 2012, only 17 of 109 households still maintained secondary forests adjacent to farmlands, called pa hua rai plai na, of their own, totaling 88 rai. Fig. 3 shows the years of cultivation and planting of rubber seedlings, covering 417 rai out of 664 rai in 2012. Forest clearing preceded the planting of rubber seedlings, because the villagers tended to cultivate cassava for several years before planting rubber. Both clearing of secondary forests and planting of rubber seedlings increased markedly after 2003.



Fig. 3 Clearing and Planting of Rubber Trees

Source: Questionnaire survey, 2012.

Note: Unshaded bars show the area of clearing that is current rubber gardens. Shaded bars show the area of rubber planting.


The community forest was well conserved, partly because the villagers respected their own regulations and partly because a large part of the community forest was located on rocky land that was unsuitable for cultivation. The expansion of rubber gardens accompanied various changes in the environment. On the one hand, it pushed people into a more convenient, consumption-based lifestyle by providing cash income; and on the other, it discouraged them from natural resource extraction, such as fishing and wild mushroom gathering, due to chemical pollution and decreases in natural resources. There were also changes in villagers’ daily lives. Some of them may have once considered preventing resource degradation by regulating herbicide use; in the new reality, however, they tried instead to adjust their social and customary order of open access to natural resources regardless of landownership to the new conditions brought about by rubber cultivation in which landowners could prohibit access to natural resources.

Indeed, a large proportion of the rubber gardens and cassava fields did not have any land title, with the exception of enduring farmlands that had So Po Ko 4-01 titles or those recently investigated by forest officers and qualified to be given So Tho Ko titles.5) In fact, the recent clearing of forests was mostly illegal. The land was all located outside the national park. Thus, the park guards did not monitor the villagers’ agricultural activities. The forest protection unit (nuai pongkan raksa pa) located near the village, and other forest authorities in charge of managing national forestlands outside the park, overlooked the villagers’ clearing of the forests, as the officers understood the need for them to do so to generate a livelihood. NGOs, including one that had committed to promoting the establishment of community forests in this area and to assisting the villagers, also did not publicly alert the authorities or rubber cultivation smallholders to the environmental damage. In that sense, the governmental authorities, villagers, and probably NGOs all supported the rubber boom. In the following sections, I will examine in detail the context of the rubber boom and the responses of each actor to it.

IV Development of the Rubber Boom

IV-1 Rubber Promotion Policy

In the past, rubber cultivation was limited to the southern and eastern parts of Thailand. Except for a negligible number of people who had experience working as rubber tappers in the South and had begun to cultivate the crop earlier, major cultivation in the Northeast did not begin until 1989, when the government initiated a rubber promotion policy. Arak, an officer at the Rubber Research Institute, under the Department of Agriculture, reported that the government began to consider promoting rubber in the Northeast and North in the late 1970s. During that period, Malaysian plantation companies decided to switch from rubber to palm oil (they executed these plans in the early 1980s) due to the continuing low price of rubber. However, the Thai government anticipated a shortage in rubber supply and sought new areas for rubber cultivation in the North and Northeast. First, an experimental plantation was started in the newly established Chachoengsao Rubber Research Center.6) Seeing the successful results of the experiment, the government started a rubber promotion policy in 1989, the first phase of which continued until 1996 and resulted in approximately 280,000 rai being brought under cultivation in the Northeast. The promotion of rubber in this phase aimed at reforestation as well. The following phase, from 1997 to 2001 (and then extended), targeted an additional growth area of 200,000 rai and a total cultivation area of 800,000 rai (Phu chat kan rai wan, March 10, 1997; Matichon, April 4, 2001). Two further phases, in 2003–6 and 2011–13, set more ambitious targets of an additional 1 million rai (700,000 rai in the Northeast and 300,000 rai in the North) and 800,000 rai (500,000 rai in the Northeast, 150,000 rai in the North, and 150,000 rai in the central region) respectively (Khao sot, June 14, 2003; Deli niu, October 8, 2009; Krungthep thurakit, January 15, 2011; Yuphin 2013). In each phase, the promotion project provided participating farmers with rubber seedlings at no cost and low-interest loans to support expenditures until rubber began to be harvested.

IV-2 Difficulties in the Initial Phase

The rubber promotion policy was not effective, especially in the initial phase. For example, the second phase, 1997–2001, targeted a 200,000-rai increase in cultivation area. Because the target was not achieved within the planned period, the project phase was extended (Matichon, April 4, 2001). The rubber price was as low as 20 baht per kilogram until around 2002–3. More important, most farmers in the Northeast were skeptical that rubber could grow in their region, where natural conditions such as weather, moisture, and soil differed significantly from those in the South.

Panya Woraphithayaphon, who had been working to promote rubber cultivation as a staff member of the Office of Rubber Replanting Aid Fund in the Northeast since 1987 and was the director of the Ubon Ratchathani branch office in 2013, reported that it took five years (1987–93) for him to convince farmers to cultivate rubber. Farmers in this region tended to think in the short term. They were also likely to be easily convinced by rumors without verifying facts for themselves. Thus, in the initial period, a rumor was spread throughout the region that said “If you plant rubber trees, what comes out is tears (nam ta), not latex (nam yang),” metaphorically saying that rubber could not grow well in the Northeast and that farmers would suffer. Actually, latex was harvested in the research center in Nong Khai, demonstrating that rubber could grow well in the Northeast. However, farmers at that time were not easily convinced.7) In the same way, a newspaper reported that a village headman in Mukdahan Province who planted rubber and tried to encourage other villagers to do the same was called a fool (Suchat 1998).

IV-3 Rubber Boom

Farmers in the Northeast began to plant rubber enthusiastically around 2002–3 (Fig. 4), when the Thaksin government adopted the accelerated rubber promotion policy often called the “1 million rai project.” It is true that the government made a significant policy shift to boost the target to an additional 1 million rai of cultivated area and that the Thaksin government needed to revoke a previous cabinet resolution that limited the rubber cultivation area in the whole country to not more than 1.2 million rai (Khao sot, May 9, 2003). Expecting the project to lead to improvements in living standards, many people formed long queues to join the project (Phu chat kan rai wan, July 12, 2007; Krungthep thurakit, January 15, 2011). However, the government’s project was not the main driving force behind farmers planting rubber. Farmers planted many more rubber trees without any support from the project. Of the 4 million rai increase in rubber cultivation area between 2003 and 2009, 3.2 million rai were planted spontaneously through farmers’ own investments (Saran 2011). The government’s project was so problematic that it did not fully benefit farmers. The production of seedlings could not keep up with demand. Seedlings arrived too late in the season for planting, in insufficient numbers, and were of poor quality. Additionally, corrupt politicians were involved in the process (Saran 2011; Phu chat kan sut sapda, April 23, 2011).



Fig. 4 Expansion of Rubber Cultivation Area by Region

Source: Khana Kamakan Nayobai Yang Thamachat (2010); Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics (2010; 2012; 2015a).


Northeast farmers’ attitudes during this period were reported in the mass media. For example, a daily business paper reported that in one village in Nong Khai Province, migrants from the South purchased land from local inhabitants for rubber cultivation. However, in another village in Loei Province, villagers refused to sell their land to outsiders because they wanted to plant rubber themselves. Farmers in the Northeast “woke up” to rubber in 2002–3 (Krungthep thurakit, December 24, 2005). Furthermore, in the following years, seeing a sharp increase in rubber price—up to nearly 100 baht per kilogram (Fig. 2)—farmers formed long lines to join the project. The project could not provide enough seedlings to distribute to participating farmers, while other farmers obtained informal loans at high interest rates to pay the initial costs of rubber cultivation (Phu chat kan rai wan, July 12, 2007).

The research site also followed this trend. Rapid expansion of rubber cultivation began in 2003. Rubber was first cultivated in this area in 1989, when a few retired teachers migrated to P village, next to N village. In 1990 about 10 more P villagers began cultivation, with the support of a project by an NGO, the Progressive Farmers Association. N villagers began to cultivate rubber around 2000. From 2003, following the rubber price increase, rubber cultivation increased. N villagers made their decision to plant rubber not only due to the price in the market; they also saw that those who had planted rubber before them were doing well. They learned that rubber grew well in the area and could reward them with enough income to support a livelihood without working in Bangkok, to buy a pickup truck and a tractor, and to build a new house. Such firsthand learning about the success of their neighbors effectively pushed the villagers into rubber cultivation.

It was not only farmers who rushed into rubber. Noi, a policeman at the nearest police station, bought land from a local farmer in 1995 and planted rubber in 2005 and 2009. He managed his rubber garden by hiring labor from neighboring villages. In fact, most of the staff at the police station had rubber gardens. This was true of other public officials, such as school, forestry, and district office personnel. Moreover, many from the South purchased land for rubber gardens. The community forest of C village, next to N village, was cleared illegally by a man from another district to plant rubber. A young girl in N village, whom one of my friends knew, was married to a rich man from the South who managed rubber gardens.

The following were all elements of the rubber boom assemblage: experimental plantations in Northeast Thailand, the fact that rubber could grow in Northeast Thailand, the rubber promotion policy of the government, increases in the price of rubber, and the economic success of the growers. In this context, empirical events such as seeing neighbors rush to plant rubber and their improved living standards were core elements that directly affected farmers, with the result that they wanted to plant more rubber.

The price dropped after 2012, as shown in Fig. 2, to around 40 baht per kilogram. However, in 2013 I still observed N villagers planting rubber; and, as reflected in questionnaire surveys, there was a higher percentage of rubber-growing households in 2015 than in 2012, as shown in Section III. In 2014 and 2015 villagers no longer planted rubber, and most of the seedling suppliers near the village disappeared or ceased to do business. Villagers who had already begun to harvest latex reported that they could tolerate the low price.

The rubber boom has passed. Rubber is at the center of farmers’ livelihoods. The rubber boom assemblage has transformed into a more stable assemblage.

V Ecological Changes due to Rubber

V-1 Damage to Protected Areas

The rapid expansion of rubber cultivation was inevitably accompanied by ecological changes. As discussed above, the promotion of rubber cultivation was aimed initially at rehabilitating degraded forestlands. Northeast Thailand in general had experienced severe deforestation until the 1980s due to agricultural expansion, which involved both self-sufficient paddy cultivation and cash-crop cultivation of plants such as maize, cassava, sugarcane, and kenaf. Replacing the fields with rubber was considered much better because rubber gardens could cover the surface of the land so that soil erosion could be prevented and moisture preserved (Wichit n.d.). In fact, in some places rubber did come to replace existing crop fields in the way that the project originally assumed. For example, in Loei Province many farmers converted swidden to rubber gardens, which was reported as a shift to sustainable agriculture (Khao sot, June 8, 2000).

However, it was revealed that rubber cultivation caused much more deforestation than forest rehabilitation in some areas. National forestlands, including protected forests such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, were illegally encroached on and cleared for rubber cultivation. In the Northeast, probably the biggest deforestation case was that of 1,250 rai in Thap Lan National Park, in Nakhon Ratchashima Province, while in Ubon Ratchathani Province a case was exposed in the Buntharik-Yot Mon Wildlife Sanctuary (Phongphon 2011). It was not only locals who were engaged in the illegal cultivation of supposedly protected forests. Businessmen, mostly from the South, bought land that the locals cleared. A case in Loei Province involved businessmen buying local people’s land with So Po Ko 4-01 deeds, which could not be legally sold, by formally claiming them to be “rentals.” Other businessmen who could not buy So Po Ko 4-01 land employed local inhabitants to clear the forests illegally. The fee for the land clearing would be paid about two years after the planting of rubber seedlings. In the event of subsequent official exposure, the businessmen insisted that they bought land that had already been cleared by the local population. In this way, businessmen invaded protected areas step by step (Wichai 2006). A similar problem was reported in Nong Khai Province (Krungthep thurakit, December 24, 2005). Destruction of protected areas by rubber cultivation was not limited to the Northeast. Even in the South, where rubber had long prevailed, cultivation expanded further in ways that endangered the final enclaves of the Sakai hunter-gatherer people in the remaining patches of protected areas (Krungthep thurakit, June 9, 2011).

V-2 Degradation of the Living Environment

N villagers did not have conflicts with the national park, as they were not adjacent to it, although farmers near the boundary and in the inner villages allegedly practiced illegal cultivation of rubber and other cash crops within the protected area. However, even outside the national park, degradation of the living environment was a serious problem.

Most of the rubber gardens, 973.3 rai according to the questionnaire survey in 2015 (as shown in Section III), were converted either directly from secondary forests called pa hua rai plai na—literally meaning forests fringing paddy fields— owned by individual villagers or following some years of cassava cultivation. Thus, that total area of forest disappeared, mostly in the last 15 years. Many villagers naturally pointed out that due to the conversion of pa hua rai plai na forests to rubber gardens, the source of natural food materials had declined and they had to rely more on the community forest that was still conserved by the villagers.

Some villagers attributed the flooding of the Huai Se—a small river running through the village—that affected the village almost every year after 2010 to the loss of forests due to rubber cultivation. There was an argument against this, however: according to some elders, there had been more severe floods in the past, when rubber was not planted, before the river was ever dredged to prevent floods—so the floods were not necessarily caused by deforestation.

What was more shocking, and more talked about by the villagers, was contamination by herbicides. In rubber gardens weeds proliferate, especially in the five years between the planting of seedlings and the closure of the crown. Weeding in this period is thought to be critical for growing the rubber seedlings and is reflected in the harvest. Villagers, therefore, sprayed herbicides once or twice during the five years. One application of herbicides could keep a garden free of weeds for a few years. At the same time, however, the herbicides widely contaminated the villagers’ living environment. After being sprayed in the rubber gardens, they flowed into neighboring land with rainwater. In the early 2000s, the villagers were shocked by an incident in which an old woman was killed by herbicide poisoning after eating wild mushrooms that she collected from the villagers’ own secondary forests adjacent to the rubber garden. Previously, the villagers had not been familiar with chemical contamination. However, after this incident they became nervous about herbicides. Now, the middlemen who buy wild mushrooms that the villagers collect accept only mushrooms from the community forest, located on higher land and thus thought to be free from contamination. Some villagers reported that they had seen many dead fish in the stream. Others said that they could no longer collect edible plants along the side of the street and eat them as they had done before the expansion of the rubber gardens. Even though the villagers felt threatened by herbicides, they could not regulate them. Thus, a general and broad anxiety prevailed regarding their living environment as a whole.

Additionally, a number of resources are disappearing due to the chain of changes in livelihood ecology. For example, phak kadon, the shoots of the Careya sphaerica, which were among the most popular wild vegetables in Northeast Thailand, are now difficult to find. The kadon is a tree that typically grew on the dikes of paddy fields. Villagers were likely to conserve kadon trees that naturally grew from seeds. However, recently it has become common for villagers to use large tractors in paddy fields. These tractors plow too deeply for kadon seedlings to germinate. Cow manure is also hard to find in the village now. The villagers once raised many cows and buffaloes. However, the expansion of rubber gardens has made it difficult to herd cows and water buffaloes that might eat or fell young rubber trees. Since most villagers have abandoned cattle grazing, they have to buy manure to make organic fertilizer. Such a causal chain of events related to rubber has been transforming the living world of the villagers, step by step. It is also changing their lifestyles, as shown in the next subsection.

A similar situation was reported in the Dong Khum Kham and Dong Phu Kham forest area, in the same district as N: rubber cultivation destabilized the villagers’ subsistence basis, leading to conflicts among villagers over natural resources (Samakhom Pa Chumchon Isan n.d.). In the Dong Saramoen forest area, also adjacent to N village, rubber cultivators even destroyed the community forest.8) In both areas, villager groups had been making efforts to encourage sustainable resource use. However, they did not prevent the cultivation of rubber.

V-3 Changes in Lifestyle

Income from rubber cultivation in N village was estimated at 10,195 baht per rai in 2014, after the sharp drop in rubber prices.9) Although initial investments and costs until the beginning of harvesting must be considered, this income would be enough to support basic everyday consumption. In fact, in past years the price was as high as 100–180 baht per kilogram, which was more than two to four times the current price. Thus, some villagers could buy new cars and tractors and build new houses. Their children were able to receive at least a high-school education and, if they wanted, college. In parallel with the degradation of villagers’ living environments, as shown above, the high price of rubber caused the villagers’ lifestyles to change.

The increasing penetration of a cash economy is apparent in both daily consumption and livelihood work. Villagers hire more labor and use machines for farmwork, buy more food materials, and use less resources from the surrounding natural environment. The continuing high price of rubber has partly facilitated their change of lifestyle to one oriented to a market economy.

Regarding the hiring of labor, some villagers reported that they currently hired much more labor for paddy cultivation, such as transplanting and harvesting, so as to finish it in the shortest time and minimize the loss of rubber harvesting time. However, the results of the questionnaire survey in 2015, containing questions on expenditures for paddy cultivation, were not consistent with this. The average expenditure for hired labor per rai of paddy cultivation in 2014 was 540.7 baht for the 38 households who answered that they had rubber gardens to harvest, whereas it was 636.8 baht for the 72 households who did not (the other 34 households did not answer). This contradicts the villagers’ explanation that those who had rubber to harvest put more effort into finishing other farmwork.

Regarding sources of food materials, many villagers reported that they bought more daily food materials than in the past because, as they explained, those who had rubber gardens to harvest did not have the time or energy to go hunting, fishing, or gathering after finishing the tapping and harvesting of rubber at night. In the past, especially before there was much rubber cultivation, few foods were purchased; most were extracted from the natural environment or planted/raised. The questionnaire survey in 2015 contained questions about sources of daily food materials other than rice, asking about the ratio extracted from nature versus planted/raised and purchased, both in 2015 and in 2000. The answers were not intended to show the real sources of foods but rather to explore the villagers’ understanding of the subject. The results (Table 1) simply do not support the villagers’ explanations.


Table 1 Villagers’ Perceptions of Food Sources in 2000 and 2015



In 2000, the three households that had already begun to harvest rubber showed higher ratios of purchased and planted/raised food with a lower dependence on nature.

In 2015, those who had started to harvest rubber depended more on the market economy than did those who had not yet begun to harvest rubber. Additionally, not only the former but also the latter showed a higher percentage of purchases in 2015 than in 2000. In other words, dependence on the market economy increased as a general trend regardless of villagers’ engagement in rubber cultivation. Rubber provided income opportunities not only for cultivators but also for those who did not have their own harvest, because more labor was required either for paddy cultivation or for work in rubber gardens.

These negative or controversial events are also elements of the rubber boom assemblage, causing ecological degradation on the one hand and making lifestyles more market dependent and separated from nature on the other. The rubber boom proceeded.

VI Outside Actors

VI-1 Government Policies and Implementations

The continuing high rubber prices created the conditions for a rubber boom, in which people were influenced by the rich consumer lifestyle enjoyed by others who had profited from rubber cultivation. As an almost inevitable side effect of this rubber boom, forest destruction and other related environmental changes occurred. Many actors, government authorities, NGOs, and local entities were involved in this process. However, all of them tended to adapt to the rubber boom, except for occasional strong measures to violently evict farmers from forestlands by forestry officials.

With respect to government authorities, the development and extension of rubber cultivation is the responsibility of the Rubber Research Institute, the Office of Rubber Replanting Aid Fund (ORRAF), and partially the provincial/district agricultural office. The Office of Agricultural Economics is also involved in policy making, especially as Khana Kamakan Nayobai Yang Thamachat (Natural Rubber Policy Committee) is headed by the vice prime minister.

Those authorities, directly committed to rubber policy in terms of agricultural development, seemed little concerned about environmental issues. Basically, the government’s scheme of support for rubber cultivation in the Northeast, planned and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and implemented mainly by ORRAF, officially required that only lands having legal title were eligible for support. The Progressive Farmers Association, the first organization to carry out a rubber promotion project around the research site in 1989, also had the same regulation. However, according to an ORRAF officer in the Ubon Ratchathani branch, the district/provincial agricultural office implemented part of the promotion project, in which, despite the official guidelines, it granted support to lands without legal title, which might also have included recent illegal, encroached lands. The ORRAF officer further reported that ORRAF had also endorsed lands without titles to be supported by the project, under pressure from a parliament member petitioned by the farmers. Once planted, supported by the project or not, having land title or not, rubber gardens could all be registered with ORRAF, so that replanting could be funded by ORRAF.

There remains the view, although it is not widely held, that rubber contributed to environmental improvement. Montri Kosalawat, secretary-general of the Progressive Farmers Association, stressed that rubber gardens provided fuelwood that could substitute for timber from the forests.10) Sukhum Wong-ek, the director of the Rubber Research Institute at the end of 2007, also stated that rubber could substitute for green forests because it could create a moist environment and enrich the land much more than many other crops (Phanphichaya 2007). Officers in charge of rubber at the Office of Agricultural Economics were astonished when I told them that many natural forests had been converted to rubber gardens, because they thought that rubber had replaced other annual crops, not natural forests. A ranking officer of the Rubber Research Institute was of the opinion that rubber should be planted on suitable land that did not include previous paddy fields, steep slopes, or national forest reserves. He did not want villagers to burn the forests and believed degradation of forests through rubber cultivation was not beneficial to villagers.

VI-2 Foresters’ Dilemmas

Conservation of natural resources is the responsibility of the Royal Forest Department for land outside protected areas, and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (National Parks Department) for protected areas. These departments did not effectively prevent the conversion of forests to rubber gardens. As shown above, even protected areas were invaded. As organizations, they were caught between their legally required task of conservation and favoring a social climate geared toward rubber. In 2007 it was revealed that the National Parks Department was ready to submit a report on the illegal occupation of national forest reserves to the minister; the director general of the department pointed out that the government’s rubber promotion policy had caused illegal occupation and cultivation of national forest reserves. He added that officers felt pressured because the initiation of legally correct measures would have gone against government policy, and therefore they could not strictly control and protect the forests. Because of this situation, many officers resigned. The director general questioned whether society would accept the disappearance of protected forests. He stressed that society should make that decision, otherwise the department alone could not conserve the forests (Matichon, July 13, 2007).

There is no clear evidence that the government prioritized the expansion of rubber cultivation over nature conservation. However, as the director general pointed out, the officers perceived such a sentiment spreading through society and believed that the government would favor it. Forest clearing was overlooked also in N and surrounding villages, as shown below, mainly due to local officers’ sympathy with the villagers. It was also reported that some corrupt officers took part in illegal encroachments. In a case in Kanchanaburi Province, brought to light in 2011, it turned out that officers, including some from the Royal Forest Department, the Department of Land, and the Department of Local Administration, had illegally “sold” national forestlands to investors from the South for rubber cultivation. After an investigation, the Royal Forest Department decided to transfer 12 officers and established a hearing committee (Chanchira 2011). Apart from this scandal, a forestry officer working in Ubon Ratchathani, a close friend of mine, told me that officers in the Forest Protection Unit accepted bribes from farmers to overlook illegal clearing of forests for rubber cultivation. More than simply bowing to social sentiment, some forest officers positively took advantage of the rubber boom.

However, there were eventually several campaigns against illegal encroachments of national forestland and, in particular, protected areas. The most well known was during 2011–12, when Damrong Phidet was the director general of the National Parks Department. As well as physically destroying resort hotels that were illegally constructed and operated by powerful businessmen in Khao Yai National Park, Damrong ordered strong measures against illegal rubber gardens in a way that had rarely been done under previous directorships. In Buntarik District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, villagers cultivated rubber in a wildlife sanctuary. They resisted officers by blockading roads. Finally, the director of Samnak Borihan Phuen Thi Anurak Thi 9 (Ubon Ratchathani) (Protected Area Management Office 9 [Ubon Ratchathani]), under the National Parks Department, sent the officers under his control out at dawn to destroy all rubber gardens as quickly as possible and to return before the road was blockaded.11) In 2015, the current military government also ordered that all rubber trees in the protected areas must be removed by the end of July. Otherwise, the officers in each protected area—national park or wildlife sanctuary—would destroy them. As I observed in a village in Pha Taem National Park, this order was implemented. However, such strong measures were not taken on a regular and systematic basis and so did not change the social sentiment generally supporting the rubber boom.

VI-3 Local Administration and NGOs

What was remarkable when considering ecological changes due to rubber, especially in comparison with previous local environmental movements—such as those concerning anti-logging efforts and community forests—was the lack of commitment by environmental NGOs, both national and local. In previous times, they had supported local movements seeking sustainable natural resource usage. However, in the face of apparent threats to local environments, as shown above, almost all the NGOs kept quiet. On the other hand, at the research site there were some local initiatives toward more balanced resource use, although none of them disallowed rubber. Officially, local municipalities, Tambon Administrative Organizations (TAOs), adopted policies that called attention to the environment and supported conservation actions by villagers. Both NT TAO, to which N village belongs, and NP TAO, of the adjacent subdistrict, had presidents with a background of working in local community forests. Both supported villagers’ activities regarding the maintenance of community forests in terms of budget allocation. However, this was a small part of the total budget, and both presidents naturally had to respond to the various needs of the people. NT TAO also organized a training course on rubber cultivation for the villagers.

A more evident and concrete initiative was the “family forest” project, pa khropkhruea, largely carried out by Lom, ex-president of NT TAO. He undertook this project before he was elected as the TAO president. Lom had grown up in a different province. After graduating from university he joined a local NGO, Nature Care, as a volunteer and later became a staff member. His task was to advise local people on the establishment of community forests and to organize an inter-village network. Even after leaving Nature Care, Lom remained in the area and worked as an adviser for the villagers’ community forest network. Although the network organization became inactive for several reasons, Lom obtained funds from UNDP and implemented the project with his staff in 2008 and 2009. This project helped villagers to make parts of privately owned pa hua rai plai na, secondary forests adjacent to farmlands, into “family forests,” pa khropkhruea, with clearly demarcated boundaries and written regulations established at participants’ meetings in each village. Although the project targeted 100 participants in NT and NP subdistricts, it attracted more than 150, whose family forests totaled 1,076 rai. Throughout the project, participants seemed well aware of the importance of family forests, even though the number of participants was limited. With the exception of one household with nine participants in N village, eight households who preserved family forests in 2010 still do so. This project, as shown later, reflected a change in the villagers’ mindset regarding natural resources.

As shown above, the attitudes varied by organization due to administratively or socially assumed roles. However, one thing they had in common was that they did not act negatively against rubber cultivation. The social climate that required prioritization of the economic benefits of rubber was so strong that the director general and other officers of the National Parks Department assumed that it was an unspoken government policy and hesitated to strictly follow the laws. At the local level, officers were sympathetic toward the poor villagers trying to improve their economic status through rubber, and so did not regulate rubber cultivation. This nationwide social climate resonated with the farmers’ hopes at the grassroots level. The actors were agents of such a social climate while they simultaneously held on to the contradictory position of sustainable forest management, which was suppressed or represented only in an indirect way, as in the family forest project. In this way, conflicts between the elements within the rubber boom assemblage were internalized in each actor.

VII Villagers’ Adaptation

VII-1 Attempts to Moderate Ecological Changes

Facing the ecological changes described above, N villagers at least recognized the problems and considered ways to solve them. Indeed, the regulation of a community forest for the village, established through village meetings, contained a provision that prohibited clearing without the permission of those with private forests. This provision could be a tool to prevent the extreme expansion of rubber cultivation. However, the villagers’ understanding seems to have been vague. For example, the head of the village community forest almost forgot the rule, stating that according to the regulations of the community forest, felling trees in private forests, unlike community forest, did not require permission. However, the kamnan (subdistrict headman), recognizing the provisions of the community forest regulations, reported that villagers in the subdistrict, including N village, would inform him before clearing private forests. He would check on site to see whether there were large trees and send a report to the Forest Protection Unit so that clearing would be overlooked because the officers understood the villagers’ need to do so for their livelihood. He explained that if he found a rich forest with large trees, he would refuse to report it to the Forest Protection Unit and persuade the holder not to clear it.

From the time he took the position in January 2011 until I interviewed him in 2012, the kamnan had heard reports of more than 50 cases in the subdistrict. Some of the cases had been rejected, although he did not remember the exact number. However, in fact, not all villagers informed the kamnan in advance of clearing private forests. In the questionnaire survey in 2015, of the 36 households that had cleared forests after 2000, lands that were currently rubber gardens, 16 households answered that they had informed the kamnan, 1 answered that they had directly informed the Forest Protection Unit, 13 households said they had not made any report, and the other 6 did not respond. Furthermore, of those who answered that they had informed the kamnan, four households answered that they had cleared secondary forests with large trees or primary forests. This shows that even the kamnan’s guidelines could not be implemented completely. The kamnan himself had to loosen the standards because villagers had the idea that they could cultivate their own land in any way allowed in the local customary context. The kamnan could not enforce anything beyond the customary rules that might be maintained or modified by the villagers’ consensus. He could refuse to talk to the Forest Protection Unit and overlook uninformed cases, but he could not punish the villagers.

In this regard, any modification or addition to village custom needs majority approval, although there is no institutionalized process for this. The establishment of the community forest is a typical example. The community forest organization and regulations were established through a series of village meetings, to which all villagers were invited. The process of establishing the community forest was formally organized with forest officers’ assistance. Consensus could be promoted in informal ways. The regulation of rubber cultivation and related activities has not reached a consensus. For example, some villagers would like to regulate the use of herbicides. However, one explained it was impossible to regulate herbicide use through the villagers’ own initiatives because people from outside had bought land in the village and would not comply with group directives. However, this explanation is not reasonable because there has never been any explicit attempt to regulate herbicide use, even among the villagers, although some villagers individually made decisions not to spray herbicides because their lands were near residential areas. The villagers have overlooked the issue of contamination in the interest of convenience regarding their own rubber cultivation.

VII-2 Increasing Concern about Rights

With the rapid ecological changes, villagers’ concern about rights over resources, particularly private forests, has increased. Some have attempted to enclose their own resources and exclude others. The custom was that everyone could take wild resources from anyone’s land. For many years, extracting timber from private forests without permission from the owner has been prohibited. However, collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots, for example, has been considered open to anyone. This situation is now ambiguous.

The family forest project, described above, reflects the villagers’ conflicted attitudes. Each participant was given signboards to place at the entrance of the family forest, showing the regulations for family forests. At a glance, this project merely encouraged owners to consider sustainable resource use, and thus, as some villagers suggested, its target seemed to be vague. However, in fact, this project contained important modifications of village customs, because the regulations—collectively established through village meetings and commonly applied to all participants within the village—included provisions that persons other than family members were not allowed to enter or extract resources from a family forest without permission. Moreover, penalties were specified. These were significant changes in custom. However, unlike the regulations for community forests, which most villagers respected because of their passage through village meetings, participants in the family forest project seemed hesitant to respect family forest regulations. The discourse and actions of the villagers in relation to family forests remain ambiguous.

When I interviewed a kamnan, Khon, in 2010, he stated that despite the regulation of family forests, collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots in others’ forests was not prohibited because all villagers were living in cooperation with each other. Sommai, a participant in the project, stressed that he had the right to conserve his own forest by himself. He stated that he could overlook his relatives freely collecting resources. However, I found that he did not put up a sign setting out the regulations. He explained that he had previously put it up at his family forest, but he kept it in his house now because he wondered whether the sign would be damaged by exposure to wind and rain. He insisted that he would put it up again when officers came to inspect it so that he could show he was conserving the forest in the way the regulations stipulated. Rin, another participant, told me that he put up the sign at his family forest. However, this was not true. In fact, no participant in N village put up the sign.

Each village operated under different conditions. For example, in Na Thoi, neighboring N village, some participants did put up signs showing almost the same regulations as those for N village, although all villagers apparently understood that, contrary to the regulations, collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots was open to anyone. One participant in Na Thoi reported that although other villagers had extracted timber from his forest before, after the project was launched they came to ask permission in advance. Thus, the project substantially strengthened owners’ control of family forests.

VII-3 Changing Customs

Regardless of the family forest project, among N villagers the idea has been spreading gradually that natural resources should be extracted from one’s own forests. When I interviewed an assistant of the kamnan at that time (and the current kamnan), Sit, in 2010, he reported that villagers collected bamboo shoots and fuelwood from their own forests, and that if they entered another family’s forest they needed to get permission from the owners. Mushrooms, however, were still open to all because mushrooms went bad quickly. According to him, this change in custom had been established since around 2002, when the community forest was formally established. Sit’s explanation was contradicted by Khon. Khon, the kamnan at that time, showed a more formal understanding, while what was actually happening was as Sit suggested. In other words, the change in custom was still too uncertain to formally enforce it among all villagers. As proof, one villager who had converted all his forests to rubber gardens did not hesitate to gather mushrooms and bamboo shoots from other families’ forests. However, nobody formally complained.

In 2013, I was astonished by the accounts of a number of different witnesses. One villager told me some villagers had prohibited others from collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots in their forests for two to three years, because they were afraid that they would collect too many and then sell them. I asked Khon, an ex-kamnan at the time, for the truth. He revealed that most villagers had done so for five years, triggered by an incident in which a villager had guided an outside collector to extract large amounts of mushrooms and bamboo shoots from others’ forests for the purpose of selling them. However, he added, it was presumed that N villagers could collect them in others’ forests with permission from the owners. Thip, a villager present at the time, stressed that permission had to be given on request. In reality, however, there were cases in which the owner refused to give permission. This was completely contradictory to what Khon said in 2010.

Assuming that the incident that caused changes in the villagers’ behavior occurred around 2010, the custom might have changed between 2010 and 2013 and those villagers who refused others permission to collect mushrooms and bamboo shoots in their own forests gradually became the majority. There has never been any institutionalized mechanism for the modification or reinterpretation of customs in the village. The customs at each moment simply reflect the collective thoughts and actions of the villagers. The villagers, on the one hand, accepted ecological changes in exchange for the wealth they could acquire through rubber cultivation. At the same time, they came to consider the need to enclose their own forest resources, which had become increasingly scarce due to rubber cultivation. The collective attitudes of the villagers resulted in changes in their customs.

As shown above, the responses of local communities to the ecological changes caused by rubber were complex. Two kamnan tried to conserve private forests by requiring applications for clearing forests, but their attempt failed. Some villagers believed that herbicide use should be prohibited, but this was not realized. Village customs changed to admit the enclosure of non-timber forest products in private forests. Village customs can be formed and modified by informal consensus as well as through formal village meetings. Informal consensus is shaped as a collective response on the part of villagers to an action inconsistent with existing customs. Individual interpretations are shared in daily chats among villagers. When consensus is reached in this way, customs may change. Based on various events related to rubber—good and bad—individual opinions were established that could change village customs, as above. All these elements were features of a rubber boom assemblage in the village.

VIII Conclusion

As shown above, each actor’s behavior supported the rubber boom. During the rubber boom that began in the early 2000s, farmers’ spontaneous efforts, rather than government policies, played a key role. Farmers learned that rubber prices were high and profitable, and that rubber could grow as well in the Northeast as in the South. They saw neighbors who had planted rubber becoming rich. People from the South bought land for rubber gardens. Many civil servants also invested in rubber. With all these experiences, farmers were driven to rubber like a pandemic, which finally resulted in the rubber boom spreading through much of society.

This rapid expansion of rubber cultivation had ecological impacts. The mass media reported illegal cultivation within protected areas. Outside protected areas, such as the study site, patches of secondary forests that farmers had customarily occupied were also cleared. Increased floods were suspected to have been caused by deforestation. Contamination by herbicides threatened villagers. Beyond these events, indirect ecological changes related to the villagers’ environment and livelihood were also observed, such as decreased daily food resource extraction from the natural environment because rubber cultivators had to tap at night, reduced cattle raising due to difficulty in securing space for herding, and the disappearance of some wild tree-leaf vegetables around paddy fields due to the introduction of large tractors.

However, no actor was on principle negative toward rubber cultivation. Regarding the bureaucracy, agricultural agencies insisted they were not responsible for deforestation because qualified promotion projects involved land with title. However, rubber gardens without land titles were also given technical assistance and qualified to receive replanting funds when trees became old. Under pressure from politicians, officers gave funds for land without legal title, land that was unqualified for the projects due to regulations. Regarding herbicides, officers of agricultural agencies maintained a neutral position. Conservation agencies overlooked local people’s clearing of secondary forests outside protected areas. Some officers were involved in corruption as well. Even executive officers doubted whether strictly enforcing regulations might go against the government’s policies. So they took measures such as evicting illegal rubber cultivators in the protected forests only occasionally, with well-prepared operations. Local administrations attempted to disseminate the importance of forest conservation. A former NGO worker carried out the family forest project but did not discourage rubber cultivation.

N villagers did not reach any consensus on regulating private forest clearing or herbicide use by amending their customary rules, although many experienced anxiety over these issues. Instead, in response to resource scarcity, the villagers increasingly enclosed their private forest resources, resulting in changes in customary rules. However, the village’s community forest, established with the villagers’ consensus, was firmly conserved. A considerable portion of the community forest is rocky and uncultivable. However, the cultivable area has never been invaded, in contrast to private forests, where most of the land has been converted to rubber gardens. It is equally illegal to cultivate rubber in community forests and private forests. The community forest was saved for no other reason than the villagers’ strong consensus on this point. Here one can see something of the villagers’ sense of balance.

These were all factors of the rubber boom assemblage. Some factors extended over broad geographical areas, such as rubber prices, laws and institutions, the material and biological characteristics of rubber, and the cultivability of rubber in each locale. In addition, there were a number of micro-level elements, such as the various events that the farmers experienced. All these factors had an effect on each other and, assembled, constituted the social climate of the rubber boom. During the rubber boom, the importance of sustainable natural resource management was not completely neglected. Instead, it was internalized in each actor. Actors in whom multiple agencies existed in contradiction to each other and who suffered from a sense of internal contradiction declined to take any action against rubber cultivation. This differs from what Anna Tsing (2005) has described as friction between networks of conflicting values with regard to forest resources. The friction was internalized because the rubber boom took place in the context of an overwhelming desire for socioeconomic improvement in rural areas.

In fact, many actors recognized the problems of ecological degradation but felt that these problems were unavoidable and regrettable. Such an emotional atmosphere in society is thought to have reflected the political environment during Thaksin’s government, as well as that of his successors following his ouster by the military coup in 2006. The leaders owed their political power to the strength of their election based on overwhelming support in the North and Northeast of the country. Conversely, reckless measures against illegal forest encroachment were taken by the military government after the coup in 2014. Many rubber cultivators who had long encroached on national forestlands were violently evicted, prosecuted, and jailed. There was no evidence that Thaksin prioritized the expansion of rubber cultivation over nature conservation. However, the political environment during the pro-Thaksin governments was also an important element of the rubber boom assemblage.

Within the rubber boom assemblage, elements such as rubber price, improving farmers’ living standards, and democratic political environments formed a sub-assemblage of forces driving the rubber boom. These were so powerful that their friction with sustainable natural resource management and other environmental issues became internalized. Therefore, it appears that no action was taken against rubber cultivation by any of the actors, and that there was a sudden swing in support of the rubber boom.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


I would like to express my best thanks to the people in N and surrounding villages as well as officers of ORRAF, OAE, Rubber Research Institute for their friendship and cooperation to my field research. I also appreciate constructive suggestions given by anonymous reviewers.

This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number JP17K02028 and 25360031; and Grant for Environmental Research Projects from the Sumitomo Foundation.


Agrawal, Arun. 2005. Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Chanchira Phongrai จันทร์จิรา พงษ์ราย. 2011. Khabuankan “kho ro ko. hua nai thun” plian pa pen suan yang ขบวนการ ‘ขรก.ฮั้วนายทุน’ เปลี่ยนป่าเป็นสวนยาง [Process by which corruption between officers and businessmen transformed forests into rubber gardens]. Krungthep thurakit กรุงเทพธุรกิจ. May 8.

Collier, Stephen J.; and Ong, Aihwa. 2005. Global Assemblages, Anthropological Problems. In Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems, edited by Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, pp. 3–21. Oxford: Blackwell.

Deleuze, Gilles; and Guattari, Felix. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fox, Jefferson; and Castella, Jean-Christophe. 2013. Expansion of Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) in Mainland Southeast Asia: What Are the Prospects for Smallholders? Journal of Peasant Studies 40(1): 155–170.

Fujita Wataru 藤田 渡. 2011. Rokaru komonzu ni okeru chiiki jumin no shutaisei no shozai: Jissen komyunitei no seisei to kenryoku kankei ni tsuite ローカル・コモンズにおける地域住民の「主体性」の所在―実践コミュニティの生成と権力関係について [The subjectivity of local people in the management of local commons: Formation of power relationships within a community of practice]. Bunka jinruigaku 文化人類学 [Japanese journal of cultural anthropology] 76(2): 125–145.

―. 2008. Tai komyunitei rin ho no 17 nen: Ronso no tenkai ni miru seijiteki shakaiteki kozu タイ「コミュニティ林法」の17年―論争の展開にみる政治的・社会的構図 [The sociopolitical process of the community forest bill controversy in Thailand]. Tonan Ajia kenkyu 東南アジア研究 [Southeast Asian studies] 46(3): 442–467.

―. 2003. Dealing with Contradictions: Examining the National Forest Reserve in Thailand. Tonan Ajia kenkyu 東南アジア研究 [Southeast Asian studies] 41(2): 206–238.

Hirsch, Philip. 1990. Development Dilemmas in Rural Thailand. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Hurni, Kaspar; and Fox, Jefferson. 2018. The Expansion of Tree-Based Crops in Mainland Southeast Asia: 2001 to 2014. Journal of Land Use Science 13(1–2): 198–219.

Khana Kamakan Nayobai Yang Thamachat คณะกรรมการนโยบายยางธรรมชาติ [Natural Rubber Policy Committee]. 2010. Yuthasat phatana yang phara 2552–2556 ยุทธศาสตร์พัฒนายางพารา พ.ศ. 2552–2556 [Phara rubber development strategy 2009–2013].

Köhne, Michiel. 2014. Multi-stakeholder Initiative Governance as Assemblage: Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm as a Political Resource in Land Conflicts Related to Oil Palm Plantations. Agriculture and Human Values 31: 469–480.

Li, Tania M. 2007. Practices of Assemblage and Community Forest Management. Economy and Society 36(2): 263–293.

McFarlane, Colin. 2009. Translocal Assemblages: Space, Power and Social Movements. Geoforum 40: 561–567.

Pasuk Phongpaichit; and Baker, Chris. 1995. Thailand: Economy and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Patarapong Kroeksakul; Aree Naipinit; and Thongphon Promsaka Na Sakolnakorn. 2011. The Economic and Social Effects of Farmers Growing Para Rubber in Northeast Thailand: A Case Study of Sapsomboon Village, Dun Sad Sub-District, Kranoun District, Khon Kaen Province. Journal of Business Case Studies 7(1): 113–118.

Peluso, Nancy Lee; and Vandergeest, Peter. 2001. Genealogies of the Political Forest and Customary Rights in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Journal of Asian Studies 60(3): 761–812.

Phanphichaya Susewi พรรญพิชญา สุเสวี. 2007. Pluk yang chak phuenthi rap phoem phuenthi si khiao su phu khao ปลูกยางจากพื้นที่ราบ . . . เพิ่มพื้นที่สีเขียวสู่ภูเขา [Planting rubber increases green lands from flat areas to mountains]. Deli niu เดลินิวส์. December 25.

Phongphon Sarnsamak. 2011. Forests Cleared for Illegal Plantations. The Nation. June 9.

Rambo, A. Terry. 2017. The Agrarian Transformation in Northeast Thailand: A Review of Recent Research. Southeast Asian Studies 6(2): 211–245.

Rigg, Jonathan; Buapun Promphaking; and Le Mare, Ann. 2014. Personalizing the Middle-Income Trap: An Inter-Generational Migrant View from Rural Thailand. World Development 59: 184–198.

Rigg, Jonathan; and Salamanca, Albert. 2015. The Devil in the Detail: Interpreting Livelihood Turbulence from a 25-Year Panel Study from Thailand. Area 47(3): 296–304.

―. 2011. Connecting Lives, Living, and Location: Mobility and Spatial Signatures in Northeast Thailand, 1982–2009. Critical Asian Studies 43(4): 551–575.

Rigg, Jonathan; Salamanca, Albert; Monchai Phongsiri; and Mattara Sripun. 2018. More Farmers, Less Farming? Understanding the Truncated Agrarian Transition in Thailand. World Development 107: 327–337.

Samakhom Pa Chumchon Isan สมาคมป่าชุมชนอีสาน [Isan Community Forest Association]. n.d. Kan pluk yang phara kap phon krathop to pa hua rai plai na การปลกูยางพารากับผลกระทบต่อป่าหัวไร่ปลายนา [Rubber cultivation and its impact on forests adjacent to farmlands]. Biothai Foundation., accessed February 25, 2012.

Saran Thitikak ศรัณย์ ธิติลักษณ์. 2011. Nayobai kan mueang kap kan thucharit นโยบายการเมืองกับการทุจริต [Policy, politics, and justice]. Krungthep thurakit กรุงเทพธุรกิจ. May 13.

Sorat Praweenwongwuthi; Tewin Kaewmuangmoon; Sukanlaya Choenkwan; and Rambo, A. Terry. 2017. Recent Changes in Agricultural Land Use in the Riverine Area of Nakhon Phanom Province, Northeast Thailand. Southeast Asian Studies 6(2): 357–365.

Suchat Chanchanawiwat สุชาติ ชาญชนะวิวัฒน์. 1998. Kasetrakon kap kan pluk yang phara phuet sethakit mai khrongkan so ko yo เกษตรกรกับการปลูกยางพาราพืชเศรษฐกิจใหม่ โครงการ สกย [Farmers and rubber cultivation: New cash crop of the project of the Office of Rubber Replanting Aid Fund]. Syam rat สยามรัฐ. May 30.

Thailand, National Statistical Office (NSO). 2015. Raidai lae kan krachai raidai khong khrua ruean pho. so. 2558 radap changwat รายได้และการกระจายรายได้ของครัวเรือน พ.ศ. 2558 ระดับจังหวัด [Household income and distribution, 2015, provincial level]., accessed September 6, 2018.

―. 2011. The 2011 Household Socioeconomic Survey, Ubon Ratchathani Province., accessed September 6, 2018.

―. 2009. The 2009 Household Socioeconomic Survey., accessed September 6, 2018.

―. 2007. The 2007 Household Socioeconomic Survey., accessed September 6, 2018.

―. 2006. The 2006 Household Socioeconomic Survey., accessed September 6, 2018.

―. 1998. Report of the 1998 Household Socioeconomic Survey., accessed September 6, 2018.

―. 1996. Report of the 1996 Household Socioeconomic Survey., accessed September 6, 2018.

Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics. 2015a. Agricultural Statistics of Thailand 2014.

―. 2015b. Yang phara: rakha yang phaen dip chan 3 rai duean thi kasetkon khai dai thi suan thang prathet pi 2540–2558 ยางพารา: ราคายางแผ่นดิบชั้น 3 รายเดือนที่เกษตรกรขายได้ที่สวนทั้งประเทศปี 2540–2558 [Phara rubber: monthly price at farm-yard of grade 3 unsmoked rubber sheet 1997–2015]., accessed November 7, 2015.

―. 2012. Agricultural Statistics of Thailand 2011.

―. 2010. Agricultural Statistics of Thailand 2009.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Statistical Office. 2002. Report of the Socioeconomic Survey, 2002.

Uhlig, Harald. 1988. Spontaneous and Planned Settlement in South-East Asia. In Agricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics, edited by Walther Manchard and William B. Morgan, pp. 7–43. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Uraiwan Tongkaemkaew; and Aran Patanothai. 2013. Expansion of Rubber Plantations in Northeast Thailand: Income and Living Status of Full-time Hired Labors. Khon Kaen Agriculture Journal 41(4): 497–506.

Vandergeest, Peter; and Peluso, Nancy Lee. 1995. Territorialization and State Power in Thailand. Theory and Society 24: 385–426.

Wichai Chindahem วิชัย จินดาเหม. 2006. Nayobai pluk “yang phara”—nayobai nun chao ban bukruk pa นโยบายปลูก‘ยางพารา’—นโยบายหนุนชาวบ้านบุกรุกป่า [Rubber cultivation policy: Policy supporting villagers encroaching forests]. Khao sot ข่าวสด. March 9.

Wichit Suwannapricha วิชิต สุวรรณปรีชา. n.d. 20 pi bon sen thang yang phara su isan ๒๐ ปีบนเส้นทางยางพาราสู่อีสาน [Twenty years on the road of phara rubber to Isan]., accessed March 3, 2012.

Yuphin Phongthong ยุพิน พงษ์ทอง. 2013. Kaset cho lom ‘yang’ 8 saen rai: Suan thang nayobai dan rakha เกษตรฯจ่อล้ม‘ยาง’8แสนไร่ สวนทางนโยบายดันราคา. กรุงเทพธุรกิจ [Agricultural Ministry fells rubber trees on 800,000 rai as a measure to increase rubber price]. Krungthep thurakit กรุงเทพธุรกิจ. January 14.

Newspaper Articles with No Byline

Deli niu เดลินิวส์. 2009. Dai thi dan kla yang phoem ik 1 lan rai ได้ทีดันกล้ายาง เพิ่มอีก1ล้านไร่ [Pressure for rubber seedlings for additional 1 million rai]. October 8.

Khao sot ข่าวสด. 2003. Nayok sang phoem phuenthi pluk yang nen phak nuea-isan นายกฯ สั่งเพิ่มพื้นที่ปลูกยาง เน้นภากเหนือ-อีสาน [Premier ordered to increase rubber cultivation area, putting emphasis on the North]. May 9.

―. 2003. Kho cho ko. ploi ku phoem thuenthi pluk yang phara 1 lan rai คชก.ปล่อยกู้เพิ่มพื้นที่ปลูกยางพารา1ร้านไร่ [Subcommittee for farmer support policy and measures provides more funds for 1 million rai rubber cultivation]. June 14.

―. 2000. “Loei” saeksaeng yang phara plian phaen prayat ngop ‘เลย’แทรกแฃงยางพารา เปลี่ยนแผนประหยัดงบ [Loei intervenes in rubber, changes the budget saving plan]. June 8.

Krungthep thurakit กรุงเทพธุรกิจ. 2011. Rat “khik oof”-pluk yang 8 saen rai duean na รัฐ‘คิกออฟ’ปลูกยาง8แสนไร่เดือนหน้า [Government “kicked off”: Planting 800,000 rai rubber in the next month]. January 15.

―. 2011. Nak wichai talueng ruk pa pluk yang lum nam 1 e ‘Khao Pu Khao Ya’ saen rai นักวิจัยตะลึงรุกป่าปลูกยางลุ่มน้ำ1เอ‘เขาปู่เขาย่า’แสนไร่ [Researcher is bemused over forest encroachment of 100,000 rai for rubber cultivation in “Khao Pu Khao Ya” 1A watershed area]. June 9.

―. 2005. Nayobai yang phara lan rai nai thun-phu mi ithiphon sop chong hup pa นโยบายยางพาราล้านไร่ นายทุน-ผู้มีอิทธิพลสบช่องฮุบป่า [One million rai rubber policy gives businessmen-influential persons channels to eat forests]. December 24.

Matichon มติชน. 2007. Athibodi uthayan ngong nayobai pa sanguan nun pluk yang phara tham ngan lambak อธิบดีอุทยานงงนโยบายยางพาราทำงานลำบาก [Director general of National Parks Department is confused over rubber policy that made his work difficult]. July 13.

―. 2001. Phaen ut Isan sot sai—ruk pluk yang 180,000 rai แผนอุตฯอีสานสดใส รุกปลูกยาง180,000ไร่ [Plan to assist for a bright Isan: Push planting rubber on 180,000 rai]. April 4.

Phu chat kan rai wan ผู้จัดการรายวัน. 2007. Huan “nayobai pluk yang isan 1 lan rai” lew kasetrakon siang khat thun het rat phaen rong rap หวั่น“นโยบายปลูกยางพาราอีสาน1ล้านไร่”เหลว เกษตรกรเสี่ยงขาดทุนเหตุรัฐแผนรองรับ [Worried about “one million rai rubber cultivation policy” failing, farmers make a loss if the government supports the plan]. July 12.

―. 1997. Dan tang khana ko ko. pongkan yang wikrit sam man ดันตั้งคณะกก.ป้องกันยางวิกฤฃ้ำมันฯ [Push to establish a committee to prevent a crisis in rubber like cassava]. March 10.

Phu chat kan sut sapda ผู้จัดการสุดสัปดาห์. 2011. Khrai kla dap fan “Nakhon Phanom” mueang luang yang phara ไครกล้าดับฝัน“นครพนม”เมืองหลวงยางพารา [Who dares to break the dream of “Nakhon Phanom,” the capital of rubber]. April 23.

1) In the long debate about “community forest law” from 1990 to 2007, all actors agreed upon the need to manage community forests sustainably, including the Forest Department, conservation-oriented and local-people’s-rights-oriented NGOs, and local community representatives (Fujita 2008).

2) Their use of the term “territorialization” differs from that of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987), as it is more focused on actual contested rights over forest resources.

3) The establishment of N village’s community forest in 1997 was de facto, with approximately 80 percent of villagers in agreement, while its formal establishment, with complete agreement, was in 2002.

4) 1 rai equals 0.16 ha.

5) Both So Po Ko 4-01 and So Tho Ko are limited land titles giving cultivation rights but not rights for sale and mortgage. The former title is issued by the Agricultural Land Reform Office, while the latter is issued by the Royal Forest Department.

6) Interview with Arak Chanthuma, Rubber Research Institute, March 26, 2014.

7) Interview with Panya Woraphithayaphon, ORRAF Ubon Ratchathani branch office, March 1, 2012.

8) Personal communication with members of the Dong Saramoen Forest Network.

9) The questionnaire survey in 2015 was partly unsuccessful, as many villagers were unable to quantify the cost of rubber. The calculation was as follows: In N village, 48 households of a total of 144 held rubber gardens already harvested at the time of the survey in July and August 2015; the rubber trees were eight or more years old. Assuming the annual average harvest per rai in Ubon Ratchathani Province to be 215 kg, following the latest available statistics (Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics 2015a, 98), the average price of unsmoked rubber sheet in 2014 was 53.93 baht (Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics 2015b), and fertilizer use was 500 g per tree for 70 trees on 1 rai. In the Si Muang Mai District town where most villagers bought fertilizer, the cost of fertilizer was 700–1,000 baht per 50 kg, depending on the brand; assuming it to be 1,000 baht, the income per rai of rubber garden was estimated to be 10,195 baht.

10) Interview with Montri Kosalawat, July 29, 2014.

11) Personal communication with an officer of the Protected Area Management Office 9.


Vol. 9, No. 3, Agung Wicaksono


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Post-1998 Changes in Rural Java: The Rapid Expansion of the Middle Class*

Agung Wicaksono**

*This paper is part of the author’s dissertation, “The Rapid Expansion of Middle Class in Rural Java: A Study of Socio-historical Processes of the Middle Class Formation and Its Impacts on Rural Life after the 1998 Economic Crisis” (Kyoto University, 2019).
**Departemen Antropologi, Fakultas Ilmu Budaya, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Jl. Nusantara 1, Bulaksumur, Yogyakarta 55281, Indonesia
e-mail: agung_wicaksono87[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_351

After the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, for the first time the rural middle-class population in Indonesia grew faster than the urban population in relative terms. This was somewhat astonishing, given that in Indonesia the middle class has historically been synonymous with the urban population. This paper asks what factors allowed such a rapid expansion and what its impacts were on rural life. It argues that this phenomenon was partly the result of good governance, which dismantled most elements of state patronage. In tandem with the structural-economic changes characterized by a shift from the formal to the informal sector, this new setting paved the way for the aspiring lower class, which has historically been marginalized by the system, to climb the socioeconomic ladder. The transition also brought about a new morality regarding material affluence. Even though this new setting might suit the wishes of the aspirational lower class following the gradual dismantling of strong state clientelism, it has been accompanied by an increase in economic inequality.

Keywords: middle class, rural areas, state clientelism, democratization of village government, high inequality

I Introduction

The implementation of Law No. 6/2014 on villages may have marked a new watershed for Indonesian villages and their dwellers. The law sets out a framework for village autonomy, particularly in villages’ capacity to manage their own budgets and resource allocations. Each village receives approximately 1 billion rupiah per year, with the central government having allocated 67 trillion rupiah to villages in 2015–16 (Republik Indonesia, Kementerian Keuangan 2018). The injection of such vast amounts of money undeniably boosted the economy of rural areas.

If more attention is paid to rural Java, a remarkable change can be seen to have taken place since the mid-2000s. For the first time, the rural middle-class population has grown faster than the urban population, albeit in relative terms. From 1999 to 2009, the urban and rural middle-class populations increased by 41 percent and 111 percent respectively (ADB 2010). The increasing size of the rural middle-class population, as reported by ADB, is not an illusion. Evidence of middle-classness can be found wherever one looks, starting with ownership of a furnished house and a car.

The research site for this study consisted of six villages. Household survey data was gathered in these six villages in 1990 and 2012. A comparison of data for the two years shows that the percentage of middle-class households grew from 6 percent to 26.7 percent in these areas.

If the evidence suggests that the circumstances are in alignment with each other, one must ask: What are the factors that allowed such a rapid expansion, and what are the implications for rural life? Although these questions beg further inquiry, the increase in the rural middle-class population has not triggered critical studies by social scholars on what factor(s) engendered this rapid expansion and how it can be precisely worked out. Based on a research study carried out in six villages in the eastern part of Pemalang, Central Java, this paper aims to explain what factors enabled this phenomenon, how the process took place, and what are the implications for village life.

The rise of the middle class has often been linked to sound economic growth (Gerke 2002; Pinches 2005; ADB 2010). This is not a novel idea in light of the success of the industrial revolution in England (King et al. 1981; Gunn and Bell 2003) and the large-scale development programs in developing countries (Goodman and Robison 1996; Robison 1996), which provide ample evidence for this claim. The recent case of Indonesia also corresponds with that postulate: the gradual economic recovery after the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 was followed by a rapid expansion of the middle class (Kurasawa 2015). However, the assumption that sound macroeconomic conditions are the sole factor affecting the size of the middle-class population can be misleading. If this was the case, rapid expansion should have occurred in Indonesia from the New Order period, when the economy grew at an unprecedented rate, reaching nearly 7 percent per annum (Booth 2016, 67).

A political approach to the question of why the rural middle class remained small during the New Order regime seems to hold more promise. Until the late 1950s, the middle class was confined to a small cohort of technocrats and bureaucrats living in urban areas (Wertheim 1955). Some might argue that there was an indigenous business class in small towns; however, they could not be classified as the rural middle class. Political turmoil, economic crisis, and Sukarno’s decision to embrace Partai Komunis Indonesia (Communist Party of Indonesia, PKI) drove this cohort in toppling Sukarno in the 1960s (Dick 1985). In the following period, the urban middle class grew quickly in alignment with the expansion of bureaucracy and private enterprises supported by easy money from the oil boom and tremendous foreign direct investment. The further question is, why did the rural middle class in Java remain small until the end of Suharto’s rule, despite rural Java also having received a substantial amount of state largesse?

The answer to that question might be found in the manner of Suharto’s governance. As articulated by Harold Crouch (1979), the stability of Suharto’s power was due to patrimonialism. Patrimonialism is a sociopolitical system in which the power of the ruler is reliant on their prowess in embracing the contending political elites, particularly through material distribution (Crouch 1979, 572). Suharto’s patrimonial state was perfected thanks to his ability to homogenize the elites’ ideology and produce politically quiescent citizens through the “floating mass” (Crouch 1979, 572). In the countryside, Suharto’s patrimonialism transformed villages into an arena of political control and development (Antlöv 2005, 200). Political control took place when the elites functioned as the guardians of political stability by promoting consensus and harmony rather than liberal democracy (Antlöv 2005, 200). This was formalized by the implementation of Law No. 5/1979 on village governance, which enabled village heads to have considerable power in rural society (Antlöv 2003, 195). Occupying a strategic position also enabled village heads to reward their allies with the facilities to embark upon new businesses and, at the same time, discourage non-state clients (see Antlöv 2005, 193–194). It was therefore no surprise that the size of the rural middle class was perpetually tiny, confined to the small cohort of dominant rural groups centered on the village apparatus.

Becoming a state client was also indistinguishable from having material affluence. As a result, common villagers viewed the middle class and their prosperity with hostility and suspicion, as symbolizing decreased morality (Antlöv 2005, ch. 7; Heryanto 2005, ch. 6). The pervasive state patronage also created an apathetic mentality among the poor. This engendered an increase in mysticism and a frenzy of lottery ticket purchasing, given that the only other way to significantly increase one’s wealth was to be a state client (Kleden 1990, ch. 13). In other words, the state’s clientelism undermined the people’s creativity.

The financial crisis in the late 1990s brought the pervasive state patronage to the brink of collapse. In addition, the global discourse of good governance quickly gained the spotlight in Indonesia, leading to the denouncement of the massive corruption, collusion, and nepotism (Thompson 2007). Lidia Schiavo and Pierre Vercauteren (2016) argue that good governance radically changed the state’s role and redefined its function from being an active economic actor to becoming a mere market facilitator by providing the right institutions under the credo of neoliberalism. Jolle Demmers et al. (2004, 2) show eloquently that technocratically, the phrase “good governance” implies efficiency, authority, and accountability of the state. This new set of institutional frameworks was assumed to stand against patrimonialism and clientelism. However, these frameworks seemed to simplify the political and economic dynamics, as the elites had proven their success in retaining or reconfiguring their power during the period of transition (Hadiz and Robison 2005).

Instead of restating the peculiarity or ambivalence of good governance, this study will look closely at the reforms that were achieved and their impacts. The political transition of 1998 brought about democratization of state institutions, including village government. It started with decentralization under the idea of good governance and yielded to Law No. 22/1999. This law not only outlined the district-level decentralization but also replaced Law No. 5/1979 on village governance (Antlöv 2003, 197). It recognized that the basis for the new regulations on village government was diversity, participation, genuine autonomy, democratization, and people’s empowerment (Antlöv 2003, 197).1)

The new law brought about significant changes. Under the scheme of autonomy, the village head was no longer positioned as the main instrument of central government. The law also limited the authority of the village head, as village officials came to be elected, appointed, or approved by the Badan Permusyawaratan Desa (Village Consultative Board) instead of being arbitrarily appointed by the village head, which was the case formerly.2) The village head’s maximum term of office was also reduced incrementally from 16 to 10 years in 1999 and only 6 years afterward.3) To refine the quality of the state apparatus, the central government also issued Law No. 43/1999, which prohibited civil servants, including the village apparatus, from engaging with political parties previously entrenched under mono-loyalty.4) This law, in tandem with Law No. 22/1999, attempted to strengthen reform at the village level by dissociating bureaucratic tasks from politics. The more democratic village institution, which was a result of the political transition in 1999, brought an end to political control and development. This led to many benefits for common villagers. The absence of political control and development meant that there was no more discrimination against non-state clients, which provided an incentive for them to improve their lives: common villagers’ past efforts at self-improvement had been hampered by village officials.

The structural-economic changes ushered in by the post-New Order regime helped to promote the rapid expansion of the rural middle class. The Indonesian economy post-1998 grew moderately. Paradoxically, the growth took place while Indonesia was dealing with deindustrialization, an economic condition in which the contribution of the manufacturing sector to both total employment and total GDP decreases (Priyarsono et al. 2010, 144). Indonesia’s deindustrialization after the 1997–98 financial crisis was proved by the high contribution to its economy of coal and palm oil exports and the service sector. Moreover, although the government encouraged the development of downstream industries from 2009, this had little overall impact on the Indonesian economy (Mizuno n.d., 1–2). In other words, Indonesia’s moderate growth was driven by the flourishing of its informal sector. The dismantling of most elements of state patronage, which eventually provided more inclusive economic opportunities, in tandem with the new structure of the Indonesian economy played a crucial role in encouraging people to climb the socioeconomic ladder through a variety of business activities. This paved the way for the rapid expansion of the rural middle class. This trajectory is in contrast with the traditional assumption that middle-classness is linked primarily to industrialization and the expansion of the formal sector.

Heavy reliance on the market has also changed villagers’ conception of morality. In the past, the rich were satisfied with being hesitant capitalists carrying out rent-seeking practices and feeling secure enough to enjoy state support through various pro-farmer policies (Hüsken 1989, 326). Nowadays, with villagers perceiving material affluence as stemming from hard work rather than connections, they no longer view prosperity with hostility or suspicion. Unfortunately, several villagers are unprepared for this new economic setting. Consequently, although the rural middle class’s growth can be attributed to economic growth, a better quality of life, and an increase in employment opportunities, the circumstances have also fostered economic inequality.

II Definition of the Middle Class

In the Indonesian context, the middle class can be defined as orang-orang mapan.5) The dictionary defines mapan as “mantap [baik, tidak goyah, stabil] kedudukannya [kehidupannya],” or a robust (sound, steady, and stable) position (life) (KBBI n.d.). In essence, a robust position is closely related to economic standing and somewhat congruent with the Javanese definition. Mapan differs from miskin (poor) or cukupan (enough or sufficient), although the former cannot be classified as hartawan (tycoons).6) To belong to the middle class, people must have a secure occupation that brings in a steady income and perform little, if any, manual labor. A steady income and the absence of manual labor imply the possession of assets.7)

Mapan is contextual rather than a fixed concept. In the past, the rural middle class was restricted to a small group of state employees or those constituting the village apparatus and, to a lesser extent, big landowners. With the asset of an organization (bureaucracy) or property (land) in hand, they had a relatively high and steady income to cover their basic needs and lifestyles. More recently, although civil servants are still considered part of the middle class, there are many occupations that produce a high income based primarily on micro and small enterprises such as those in clothing, construction, food business, or retail. In essence, skill has become a crucial asset with which to carve out wealth.

At the village level, people can easily distinguish who belongs to the middle class or lower class, even in the case of those who do not work in the formal sector. The middle class is viewed as having less anxiety about the future as they rely on ownership of assets (property, organizations, or skills). Saprani, a manual worker in Trukosari village, commented that people like Pak Bagus, who was the head of a farmer group that organized jasmine farmers for supplying to tea factories, could live comfortably as they earned a stable income from their position. Meanwhile, as a physical laborer, Saprani frequently felt insecure as he was preoccupied with finding the next job in construction or agriculture once he had finished one task.

Conceptualizing the middle class as orang-orang mapan helps this study to assess the size of the rural middle class in the six villages studied. For 1990, this study defines middle-classness in terms of the possession of consumer durables: households that owned both a motorcycle and a television are categorized as middle class.8) In 1990 these were valuable goods, and possessing them distinguished the owner from the lower class. Televisions and motorcycles also represented modern life and connected their owners with an urban—or even global—lifestyle. As argued by Solvay Gerke (2002, 137), consumerism could also be an independent standard of reference for social integration, involving the creation and communication of this identity to others by obscuring the different economic bases and facilitating social integration.

Using the same parameters to define the middle class at different times is misleading, because things that were considered valuable in the past might no longer have the same value in the present. For 2012, this study employs the income threshold, rather different from ADB’s parameter. In its special chapter “The Rise of Asia’s Middle Class,” ADB clearly noted: “This report uses an absolute approach defining the middle class as those with consumption expenditures of $2–$20 per person per day in 2005 PPP $” (ADB 2010, 6). This study employs data based on income rather than expenditure data. The low threshold as employed by ADB has been strongly criticized as an accounting trick: “the per-capita household expenditure threshold has been reduced to a very low US$2 a day. . . . Anybody not in absolute poverty is assigned to the middle class” (Van Klinken 2014, 1). Although Van Klinken’s criticisms are reasonable, one cannot deny that by rural standards a household with a per capita income of at least US$2 per day9) can be classed as being middle class. To sum up, either the possession of a television and motorcycle for 1990 or a per capita income of US$2 per day for 2012 represents middle-classness or kemapanan.

III The Research Site and Methods

Although the title seems to imply that this study discusses the growth of the Indonesian rural middle class, it does not mean that the entire region is covered. Rather, this study focuses on one particular region’s socioeconomic dynamics. By determining the socioeconomic dynamics in a particular historical range, we can analyze how the middle class emerged and expanded. Therefore, this study was carried out in a region that had previously been studied, and this is the reason why the six villages10) in the eastern part of Pemalang were chosen.

This region is a suitable social laboratory since all villages around the former Comal Baru sugar factory were surveyed by the Dutch researcher J.F.A.C. van Moll in 1903–5. In that survey, all 2,889 households in 24 villages were questioned about their ownership of assets such as land, livestock, and plough as well as house value and annual agricultural yield. Van Moll’s research provides comprehensive baseline data on the villagers’ economy in the early twentieth century. In an attempt to trace how this region had changed, two further surveys were carried out in 199011) and 201212)—this time in six of the 24 villages studied by Van Moll. The numbers of households interviewed were 500 and 1,000,13) while the questionnaire was developed to accommodate new variables such as occupation, income, migration, education, and new types of material possessions. Since I was part of the third survey (2012), I have a right to utilize the entire survey data.

Having both historical and extensive household data gathered from the same villages allowed this study to inquire into both how the middle class was formed and its size during and after the New Order regime. A follow-up ethnographical study was carried out over a period of six months (two months in 2015 and four months in 2016) to gauge people’s perception of the socioeconomic changes, the obstacles experienced historically, present opportunities, and the residents’ future aspirations. This paper provides a historical socioeconomic study based on archival research and fieldwork on six villages in Pemalang District, Central Java. It starts with a nuanced description of the socioeconomic conditions of the six villages in the aftermath of the 1965 Communist purge and during the New Order regime. It then discusses the changing landscape of the villages with the coming of Reformasi in 1998.

IV The Six Villages during the New Order Regime

Following the 1955 general election, the PKI gained 16.4 percent of the total valid votes (Mortimer 2006). The province of Central Java, where Pemalang District is located, was the main base for the PKI. This was a significant gain as the Party’s agenda prior to 1959 was limited to an attempt to show that the “PKI was the party most concerned with the villagers’ overall interests” (Mortimer 2006, 276). Although the Party’s members and sympathizers increased quickly and the Party secured its position as the biggest Communist Party in any non-Communist nation in the early 1960s (Vickers 2013), the situation changed drastically in October 1965 when the Party was blamed for the massacre of seven high-ranking Indonesian Army officials. In the absence of a comprehensive inquiry, the rumor immediately spread that the PKI had carried out a coup. There was a call for a purge of PKI members, followed by army-led massacres in Java and Bali. Many PKI members who were not killed were imprisoned without trial for years.

PKI sympathizers within each of the six villages probably made up 20 percent to 30 percent of the total population. Purges took place in Karyokasil (A), Karanggondang (D), and Trukosari (F) villages (see Map 1). Despite studies showing that many PKI members were killed during the political unrest of 1965–66,14) I have no official data on these six villages. Familial ties, to some extent, were able to protect people affiliated with the PKI from the massacre.15) In Karanggondang the village head escorted 150 PKI sympathizers to be dealt with by the Subdistrict Military Command (Hüsken 1996, ch. 8), in order to avert a brutal attack by members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Partai Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Party, PNI). As the new climate placed the PNI and NU as winners in the political turmoil, members of these two parties ruthlessly burned the houses of PKI sympathizers, looted their assets, and in a few cases harassed their wives.



Map 1 TRI Cultivation under the Supervision of Sragi Sugar Factory

Source: Personal documentation.


The annihilation of the PKI marked the onset of the New Order regime. Aside from the removal of village heads affiliated with the PKI, as was the case in Trimakmur village, other village heads formerly affiliated with the NU and PNI immediately joined Golkar. They then encouraged the dominant rural groups to do the same, given that they were their allies. An exemplary case emerged from Trukosari when Truno, the new village head, succeeded in consolidating his power by embracing the kiyais and big farmers. He then appointed many of them to strategic positions, such as the administrator of a Koperasi Unit Desa (Village Unit Cooperative, KUD) or the head of a farmer group, which eventually led to material benefits. There seemed to be a similar pattern in other villages.

The material benefits for state clients came to fruition in various ways. After the failure of the block credit system of Bimas Gotong Rojong (mutual aid mass guidance) in the late 1960s, the government introduced low-interest loans to support new types of Bimas. However, access to such credit required not only a stringent minimum standard of irrigation and farm area but also the village head’s recommendation (Hart 1986). Through this scheme, the village elites and village apparatus, which invariably had a sizable amount of land and could thus afford to take risks, became the main beneficiaries, while small farmers and the landless received the residue. The village elites also benefited from the government’s policy to increase the floor price of rice rather than the ceiling price of fertilizer. Unfortunately, the KUDs were unable to control the floor price of rice because of their limited capacity to purchase farmers’ yields during the harvest period. The village elites exploited this niche by purchasing farmers’ yields in the harvest period and reselling them to the KUD at a higher price when the supply declined, as the cooperatives usually consisted of either rice-mill owners or rice traders (Hart 1986).16)

Another policy advantageous to village elites was launched in 1975, when Suharto issued Presidential Instruction No. 9 on Tebu Rakyat Intensifikasi (TRI). One aim of the TRI program was to increase sugarcane productivity based on the assumption that an increase in production would be accompanied by an improvement in the farmers’ welfare. The field area where the sugarcane was to be cultivated was run through a rotation system stipulated by the Satpel Bimas. A sizable amount of arable land in the village was divided into three parts; each part would be planted with sugarcane cyclically in the first, second, and third years. Paradoxically, farmers’ participation in this cultivation was based on state coercion and so was not voluntary.

Map 1 displays TRI cultivation by the Sragi sugar factory in the eastern part of Pemalang, in which the six study villages are located (A–F). Satpel Bimas’s stipulation regarding the field in which sugarcane should be annually planted originally appeared in different marks from those on the map. The implementation of the TRI program was very effective even though it was carried out arbitrarily, without farmers’ involvement. The effectiveness is evident from the survey data collected in 1990 summarized in Table 1 below.


Table 1 Household Engagement in the TRI Program



Trukosari village is worth excluding when drawing conclusions about the data collected, as this area is dominated by dry fields and fishponds, which make it unsuitable for sugarcane. With that in mind, in 1990 the percentage of landowners involved in the program was approximately 23–45 percent, while the ratio of land planted with sugarcane was similar, making up 28–50 percent of the total area. This survey data is seemingly in parallel with the stipulation of Satpel Bimas above. Under the TRI program, sugarcane was cultivated through a collective system where all activities, such as land tilling and cane milling in the factory, were undertaken by a group of farmers. The landowner would earn a net income after the processed cane (sugar) was sold and the production costs were deducted. Although the profit was far less than that from cultivating paddy, the farmers had no power to go against the TRI program apart from engaging in sabotage (Suara Merdeka 1994). The lack of transparency allowed the heads of farmer groups to engage in corrupt practices. Since these heads were mostly members of the Golkar party, who had a close relationship with the village apparatus, farmers were in no position to ask for a fairer deal. In other words, farmers’ engagement with sugarcane cultivation tended to result in a relation of “adverse incorporation” (McCarthy 2010, 823).

The heads of farmer groups were typically rural rent-seekers who used their privilege to exploit the government program. In 1992–93 the minister of cooperatives stated that the debt of cane farmers in Central Java Province had reached 100.59 billion rupiah (Suara Merdeka, January 6, 1993). The borrowers were usually big farmers who were simultaneously the heads of farmer groups, part of the village apparatus, or KUD members. Small farmers could not dare to take such loans. The big farmers also borrowed vast amounts of money from sugar factories using farmers’ sugarcane as collateral. Using their status as state clients, village officials and their allies did not hesitate to abuse their power.

The regime also invested in expanding educational services. However, the lower class faced numerous barriers due to the pervasive discriminatory practices of government officials. With a limited range of employment opportunities, the lower class were set aside since the recruitment of new civil servants always involved “connection[s]” and bribery.17) Under such conditions, the rural elites, equipped with their close connections to higher officials, invariably succeeded in taking advantage of each new opportunity (Young 1990). Consequently, the education system functioned as a form of social closure that effectively excluded the lower class.

In the non-bureaucratic and agricultural sectors, the villagers’ efforts to embark upon entrepreneurial work were also discouraged by the implementation of the “disciplinary powers of registration” (Antlöv 2005, 194). In other words, village officials could endorse their families and allies for starting a new business and, at the same time, hamper their opponents and other villagers from obtaining commensurate services. Pervasive state patronage had a detrimental impact on village life because it facilitated rent-seeking practices among state clients and apathy among common villagers. The stark social cleavage between state clients and common villagers was indicated by the socioeconomic conditions of sampled households from the six villages studied in 1990 shown in Fig. 1 below.



Fig. 1 Socioeconomic Conditions of 500 Surveyed Households, 1990

Source: Survey data (1990).


Based on the 1990 survey data, only 32 percent of household heads had finished primary school. Less than 8 percent had graduated from senior high school. Most household heads (61 percent) were farmers, although the aggregate labor force engaged in agricultural activities must have been higher. When considering that only 44.2 percent of surveyed households owned arable land—either rice or dry field—in 1990, this must mean that many villagers were working as agricultural wage laborers. The practice of land leasing and sharecropping in the six villages was less intensive than in other regions of Java (see White and Wiradi 1989, 279). In 1990, only 16 percent of landowners (37 out of 221) leased or sharecropped their land. Since the 1990 survey research focused on both rice and dry fields, the ownership and role of the home garden remain unclear. Another picture of village backwardness is reinforced by the fact that around 25.4 percent of respondents’ houses still had a thatched roof, while 56.6 percent of respondents’ houses had earthen floors. Meanwhile, only 15.8 percent and 8.8 percent of the surveyed households owned a television and a motorcycle respectively.

As mentioned earlier, for 1990, households that owned both a motorcycle and a television were categorized as rural middle class. Meanwhile, I classified households with either a television or a motorcycle as the sufficient cohort (kelompok cukupan) and families without either of these goods as the lower class. Social classification based on goods ownership is shown in Table 2.


Table 2 Characteristics of Social Class in the Six Villages Studied



Table 2 shows that in 1990, only 6 percent of the sampled households could be defined as the rural middle class; this argument has been strengthened by other variables. First, the average landownership for this cohort (4,478 m²) was almost four and two times higher than the lower class and the sufficient cohort respectively. The figure becomes even higher when landless households are excluded (7,070 m²). With this amount of land, the rural middle class were the main receivers of state subsidies in the agricultural sector. The household heads’ educational background also exposes the remarkable difference between the middle class and the lower class or—particularly—the sufficient group; the percentage of household heads graduating from primary school was 25 percent and 53 percent for the lower-class and sufficient group respectively, while it was around 83 percent for the middle class, indicating that educational services were accessed almost exclusively by the latter group. The data above contradict the pattern at the national level, where more young villagers, even from the lower class, can attain a higher level of education. Regardless of the pattern at the national level, villagers strongly believed that the promise of upward social mobility still depended on whether they had connections or not: for example, a senior teacher claimed that in 1986 he was able to easily achieve tenure because of his close connection with a higher official in Semarang.

The last column in Table 2 confirms the distinction between the middle and lower classes. Although the average landownership level was higher for the middle class than the other classes, most households (76 percent) declared that they were not farmers. This implied that most respondents must have been part of the village apparatus, civil servants, small entrepreneurs, or heads of farmer groups thanks to their strategic position as government clients.

The data from the 500 surveyed households above reinforces the argument that the middle class were the main beneficiaries of state largesse because they owned large amounts of arable land. Combined with a higher level of education and supposedly a close connection to upper-level officials, they could easily engage in non-farming sectors. On the other hand, the lower class, without sufficient levels of landownership or adequate education, mostly stayed in the low-income agricultural sector and at the same time were discouraged from embarking upon entrepreneurial activities. Consequently, pervasive state clientelism precluded the smooth social mobility of the lower class, which eventually hampered the growth of the rural middle class.

V The Gradual Dismantling of State Patronage

The political upheaval that brought down Suharto under the flag of Reformasi swept the big cities in 1998. To a lesser extent, the movement also ignited a myriad of villagers to vent their resentment both toward the government that had discriminated against them and toward their right-hand accomplices, the village apparatus. The issues of abuse of authority, repression, and corruption were consequently utilized to denounce the village apparatus. The feeling of discontent with Suharto’s policies, however, had appeared years before Reformasi. When the regime’s legitimacy and power started to recede, farmers began to abstain from the long-established practice of planting sugarcane under the TRI program.18) This phenomenon is clearly revealed by the production data of Sragi sugar factory. Under the New Order’s repression, the farmers’ sugarcane cultivation area remained stable between 1986 and 1996, at around 5,000 hectares; but it dropped abruptly after 1997 (Fig. 2). This marks the decline of strong state patronage, considering the vast area of sugarcane cultivation enabled the heads of farmer groups to both receive state largesse and exploit small farmers.



Fig. 2 Cultivation Area of Sragi Sugar Factory

Source: Production data of Sragi sugar factory.


The post-Suharto government was marked by various institutional reforms under the credo of good governance as demanded by the International Monetary Fund. These reforms were momentous for moderate Indonesian technocrats in promulgating a new type of governmentality based on decentralization. The technocrats’ argument was that the model of administrative and economic centralization had drained the central government’s energy to inquire into the dynamics of global financial and economic tendencies (Syaukani et al. 2002, 172). With decentralization, districts received significant autonomy to take proper measures in creating and implementing local policies (Syaukani et al. 2002, 172–175).

As a product of Reformasi, Law No. 22/1999 not only outlined decentralization but also made village governments more democratic (Antlöv 2003). It diminished the village head’s authority and at the same time dismantled political control and development. Previously, political control and development were employed by village heads to reward their allies and discriminate against common villagers. The more democratic state institution was perfected by the issuance of Law No. 43/1999, which prohibited civil servants, including the village apparatus, from engaging with political parties that had formerly provided them with strong legitimation to abuse their power. In sum, the disappearance of political backup combined with the villagers’ awareness of transparency under the new type of governmentality led to decreased corruption in the village apparatus. This was because the continuation of corrupt practices would otherwise lead to political exploitation via the village apparatus’s competitors.

The various institutional reforms carried out by the government to resolve the financial crisis brought about significant changes at the macro level, as demonstrated by the country’s sound economic growth since 2004 (Booth 2016). Unlike in the past, the fruits of such growth were no longer distributed exclusively among state clients, as strong state clientelism had evaporated. Evidence of the more even distribution of prosperity can be seen in the survey data collected in 2012 appeared in Fig. 3 below.



Fig. 3 Socioeconomic Conditions of Sampled Households, 2012

Source: Survey data (2012).


As the population grew, the number of landowners dropped in relative terms from 44.2 percent in 1990 to 22.1 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, household heads’ engagement in non-farming activities such as construction, small-scale manufacturing, and work in the service sector jumped from 38 percent in 1990 to more than 56 percent in 2012, although the aggregate labor force involved in this sector remained high. In general, the educational level had also substantially increased by 2012. The improved conditions of rural life could be seen from respondents’ housing conditions and their possession of durable consumer goods. By 2012 the number of houses with an earthen floor had plummeted when compared with 1990, while ownership of a television, motorbike, and even mobile phone, which used to be markers of middle-classness in the late 1990s, had become increasingly prevalent.

The ADB report (2010) notes that around 28.7 percent of the rural population could be slotted into the middle-class cohort if a loose definition was used: people with an expenditure per capita of more than US$2 per day. Using the income approach, the result of the six villages studied is congruent with this. If US$2 per day per capita is used as the lower threshold, 26.7 percent of the surveyed households belonged to the middle-class cohort. In other words, the size of the middle class had grown significantly compared to 1990. It is essential to analyze the distinction between the middle and lower classes in an attempt to discern what factors enabled many villagers to become middle class while others remained poor.

Table 3 shows that the ratio of household heads who completed senior high school was arguably low for both classes. The low educational background of household heads, particularly in middle-class families, indicates that most of them were not working in the bureaucracy or clerical jobs. Second, although there is a remarkable difference in the size of land owned between the two classes, only 32 percent of middle-class families had arable land. This result indicates that the majority of the new middle class were not big landowners. As the new middle class were neither bureaucrats nor big landowners, their source of prosperity had shifted away from land and bureaucracy, which were the main assets for becoming middle class in the past, to other assets, particularly skill, as this enabled villagers to embark on various types of entrepreneurship.


Table 3 Characteristics of Social Classes in the Six Villages Studied



At the same time, the small size of middle-income farmers raises a crucial question. The survey data in 2012 revealed that nearly 70 percent of landowners lived around the poverty line. If agricultural wage labor is added, the number of people engaged in the agricultural sector living near the poverty threshold had substantially increased. My preliminary assumption was that this phenomenon might have been shaped by the lack of cohesive political farmers—farmers who were able to ask for protection from the state or align themselves with a political group and whose ultimate goal was to work with the state government, not oppose it, as in the case of Thai farmers (see Walker 2012).

This condition, as we have seen from the previous discussion, might have been the outcome of the long-term practice of marginalization under the New Order regime, when farmers were not only tamed politically but also disadvantaged economically for the sake of national development. As any social movement by farmers to defend their rights was regarded as subversive, they tended to avoid rather than attach themselves to the state.19) When the New Order collapsed, farmers were ill prepared to take cohesive political action—which would have been provided by their newfound democratic circumstances—to lift their well-being. This condition led to the perpetuation of local institutions used to exploit farmers, such as farmer groups. As in the past, farmer groups helped their members with various activities such as cultivation, harvesting, selling, and sometimes distributing government subsidies. Since the position of the leader was inherited rather than decided through democratic election, most of the farmer group leaders from the New Order held on to their position or passed it on to their children.

Having long experience in managing farmer groups, leaders have been able to ingeniously take economic advantage through various cunning means as they did in the past,20) masked with generous acts such as lending money without interest or donating money to members when they face misfortune. Although farmer groups seem to provide social security for their members, it is the leaders’ initiative to retain their members’ loyalty.21) This creates fragmentation and estrangement amongst farmers as their main goal is to have a benevolent patron in charge rather than struggle for common interests. The sense of dependency does not only undermine small farmers’ potential political power to ask for more protection and subsidies from the government or politicians, but it also enables the heads of farmer groups to easily capitalize on their position by becoming canvassers.22)

All in all, the permeation of patrimonialism at the village level precludes the smooth socioeconomic mobility of the lower class, as engagement with non-farming activities is more or less barred for them. This is particularly so when it comes to occupations requiring a connection with the government, such as the bureaucracy. As a result, there are just a handful who have succeeded in becoming wealthy through non-bureaucratic occupations. When the New Order regime decayed in the late 1990s, most elements of state patronage evaporated. Although the majority of small or tiny farmers and agricultural wage laborers still live in poverty, many villagers have been able to carve out wealth owing to more inclusive opportunities and, as will be discussed in the following section, the strengthening of the informal sector. The fairly rapid social mobility of the lower class is reflected in the comparison between data collected in the 1990 and 2012 surveys, which show that the number of middle-class households in the six villages studied jumped from 6 percent in 1990 to nearly 27 percent in 2012. Despite the rural middle class’s statistical flourishing, the quantitative data is not enough to prove any argument that the oppression or marginality experienced by the common people during the New Order regime has been obliterated. Without resolving this issue, the impact of state patronage’s decline on people’s socioeconomic creativity remains unclear.

VI The New Morality of the Rural Population

Jaman siki sapa-sapa gelem jibaku ya akeh berhasile (In this age anyone who does jibaku [works hard and dares to take risks] is likely to succeed).23)

Pak Bagus’s statement above seems to reflect the new morality, with the lower class aspiring to work hard and climb the socioeconomic ladder. This has replaced the apathetic mentality of the past, which viewed material affluence as a sign of greed, hostility toward village harmony, individualism, and menace. The dismantling of state patronage could not have been enough to engender this new morality, for it requires an appropriate economic setting.

At constant prices, the Indonesian GDP grew moderately through 2005–14: between 4.6 percent and 6.5 percent (Booth 2016, 110). The stability of Indonesia’s economic growth is somewhat peculiar. Some scholars have observed that Indonesia underwent deindustrialization, noting the decline of the manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP (see Priyarsono et al. 2010). In 2001 the sector contributed to about 30.7 percent of GDP, while in 2012 the figure dropped to less than 24.8 percent (Mizuno 2016, ch. 2). Since this drop was compensated for by soaring palm oil and coal exports, and an increase in domestic consumption (Mizuno 2016), the Indonesian economy was characterized by the strengthening of the informal sector. As this sector requires low capital and less advanced technology, and is easy to copy, myriad people, particularly from the lower social classes, could easily engage. The policy of no illegal fees stipulated by the central government in 2016 might also have aided the flourishing of the informal sector. In this new setting, the lower class, who could invest little in education, plunged into various small businesses, while the old middle class (civil servants and members of the village apparatus), feeling culturally superior, were hesitant to take those opportunities. This is not a fairy tale, as demonstrated by the household survey of 2012, summarized in Table 4.


Table 4 Number of Workers and Aggregate Revenue for Each Type of Work



Judging from the average annual income per capita, the types of occupation listed in Table 4 generate varied amounts of revenue. Compared with other occupations, agriculture yields the lowest earnings: 2.9 million rupiah per capita per year. This sector absorbs 37 percent of the total workforce. The manufacturing sector produces a slightly higher income than agriculture. The construction sector produces a moderate revenue. Since the agricultural sector seems to produce low income, even by rural standards, villagers from the lower social layers undertake various other economic activities to supplement their household income. When the demand for labor in the agricultural sector declines (during the dry season or off season), male laborers frequently work in small-scale manufacturing, construction, brickmaking, or sand mining, while female laborers switch to the domestic sector, making, for example, palm leaf brooms. Many of the younger generation aggressively attempt to escape from this sector. In sum, the 2012 household economic survey indicates that almost all surveyed households relied on a variety of occupations.

Meanwhile, trading as well as private and public services (civil service) generate substantial income for households. Although the average income of a civil servant is higher than that of a person engaged in business (Table 4), this figure should not be taken at face value. Businesspeople tend to conceal their real income as they are afraid that the researcher will divulge their information to the tax office or competitors (Rutten in Savirani 2015, 45). Even if their figures are accepted, this cohort is tiny, making up 4.9 percent of the total workforce. All in all, the survey research from 2012 shows that the informal sector, such as manufacturing for the local market, trade (such as retail, food, and drinks), and other services characterized by informality have dominated the village economy. As shown in Table 3, 267 of the 1,000 surveyed households could be classified as middle class. If US$2 per day per capita is used as the lower threshold, 26.7% of the surveyed households (267 out of 1,000) belonged to this cohort. A new economic pattern in the villages becomes clearer when seeing the household head’s occupation in middle-class families, as shown in Table 5.


Table 5 Occupations of Household Heads of Middle-Class Families, 2012



Despite occupations such as farmer and civil servant still being important in creating middle-class families (33 percent), the new rural middle class mostly emerges from small entrepreneurs and company workers (27 percent). The latter figure is increasing because middle-class families whose household heads work in construction or as agricultural wage laborers rely on their children working as entrepreneurs. By 2016 the number of entrepreneurs had increased because many successful entrepreneurs who were relatively immature in 2012 became established, and more villagers became engaged in this sector.

Despite these quantitative measurements providing remarkable evidence of the new pattern of the rural economy, little is known about the process of becoming wealthy and its impact on rural life. Examples from Trukosari village will be used to understand the contemporary rural situation. Over the last few decades wheat consumption, including bakery products, among Indonesians has increased drastically. The high demand in this market has encouraged many young villagers, particularly from poor families, to plunge into the bakery business. This is a reasonable undertaking, given that in 2014 Asosiasi Pengusaha Bakery Indonesia (Indonesian Bakery Association, APEBI) reported that the total value of baked products reached 23 trillion rupiah, equal to US$1.24 billion (Yulisman 2014).

In Trukosari, Lantip is an example of a successful small entrepreneur in this business. After completing junior school in 1997, he went to Jakarta and worked in the construction sector. He then changed direction after a short encounter with a friend who enticed him into working as a bakery salesman. Aside from selling, he also taught himself baking, which eventually allowed him—along with his older brother and sister—to start his own business. Joint ventures based on either familial ties or friendship are commonly set up by new entrepreneurs to overcome capital insufficiency. Initially, Lantip and his siblings produced brownies and cakes and sold them on consignment in small retail shops or food stalls. The strong market allowed their business to grow quickly. Some years later, the joint venture broke up.

Nevertheless, Lantip’s business continued to grow rapidly; he employed 24 salesmen in 2012. In early 2014, the heyday of brownies ended due to the market becoming saturated, and he shifted toward other bakery products such as layer cakes and muffins. In 2014 he opened a new stall in Citeureup, Bogor. The popularity of bakery products in this area earned him a lavish profit. Just two years later, he had three bakery stalls in Bogor: near PT Indocement, near Sentul International Circuit, and in Ciluar Market. Each stall employed two or three workers supervised by one trusted employee. Though the business was lucrative, the cost of production was undeniably high. At the time of my fieldwork in 2016, the cost of renting a small stall of 12 square meters was about 30 million rupiah per annum, and Lantip spent more than 100 million rupiah in rental costs alone. Lantip modestly confessed that his gross monthly revenue could reach 200 million rupiah, though the figure varied from month to month.24)

In Trukosari, Lantip was not alone in exploiting this market; much of the younger generation were waiting to start their own businesses. In a small bakery stall near Petarukan Market, Ardi, a 17-year-old boy, bemoaned his situation to me: “I am tired of having [to work] for the boss, and I am going to embark [on] my own business.” I knew that he had been involved in the bakery business since he was 14 years old. His is not an exceptional case in light of the high dropout rate of both junior and senior high school students, particularly among the lower class. One reason for the high dropout rate is that the Indonesian manufacturing sector is growing slowly, and so the big factories in and around Jakarta, which used to be the main destination of vocational students from the area, are now inclined to use short-term contract workers. An elderly villager lamented the future of his third son, whose two-year work contract in a company in Jakarta was almost over. “Now most companies are reluctant to employ a tenure,” he moaned. Such insecure conditions have encouraged many juveniles to work rather than continue their education. Moreover, the informal sector, for instance the bakery business, has been proven to succeed in improving the lives of the lower class. Based on my fieldwork, many villagers have engaged in the bakery business, as shown in Table 6.


Table 6 Number of Bakery Businessmen in Trukosari*



Trukosari village has seven hamlets, and the distribution of bakery entrepreneurs in each hamlet is slightly different. Generally, large-scale bakery businessmen have at least 4 stalls each, totalling 68 stalls among them. If each stall needs at least two workers, the businessmen employ a total of 136 laborers. Combined with medium and small-scale entrepreneurs, these businesses have absorbed a lot of labor from Trukosari village. Amidst the fierce competition in Java, some villagers have expanded their businesses to cities on other islands such as Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and even West Papua. Although many of them have been able to develop their business, some have gone bankrupt. In this competitive market, jibaku and luck are viewed as the main determinants of success. Such a mentality is not confined to the bakery business but pervades throughout other sectors. What I witnessed in Trukosari, in the case of bakery businesses and other small enterprises, was people’s willingness to engage in high-risk investments.

As the villagers’ material affluence now derives mainly from the informal sector, requiring no background in higher education or connections with bureaucrats or politicians, the new morality of the aspiring villagers is largely defined by jibaku (work hard and dare to take risks). A statement by Lantip in conversation with Wiwin, his close friend who worked as a teaching apprentice, illustrates the new villagers’ subjectivity. He said to Wiwin:

I tell you, Win, if you become a state employee [teacher], even after you have worked for 10 years you may not be able to purchase a Honda Jazz, unless you get involved in corruption. But if you get involved in this [bakery] business, I can guarantee that your life will change after only two years.

The message is clear: What might have been the main avenue for villagers to gain or retain middle class status in the past is now seemingly obsolete. Small-scale entrepreneurship holds more promise for guaranteeing middle-classness, in terms of both revenue and lifestyle. Since many of the new rich come from the lower social class through jibaku, most villagers no longer view material affluence as an indicator of deficient morality. Prosperity is now something that is longed for rather than treated with derision. What villagers now reproach is the failure to adhere to this new ethic, jibaku or hard work. Dirman, a villager with a bachelor’s degree, is an example of a person who is unable to adhere to the new ethic. Some of the villagers have given him a nickname: Wiranto. The nickname does not refer to the former Indonesian Military chief but is an acronym for wira-wiri ora nggota (busy pacing back and forth without doing anything). Amidst the abundant opportunities in the informal sector, the villagers perceive Dirman as indolent.

Nonetheless, an indolent personality per se is not adequate to explain why many villagers remain poor despite the ample opportunities provided by the informal sector. Although this is a complex problem, some assessments can be made. First, engaging in the informal sector requires certain skills, and to become a skillful person requires a lot of effort. Second, as most villagers work in the agricultural sector (37 percent of the total labor force), the absence of political farmers might hamper them from having better living conditions. Third, most poor families do not have enough young and productive laborers who can easily jump into the vibrant informal sector. The survey data of 2012 reveal that poor households tend to have more family members but fewer productive laborers, while in middle-class families it is the opposite.

Although the flourishing informal sector has allowed for dramatic socioeconomic change, it has also brought about another consequence: high economic inequality (see Rosser et al. 2000). This postulate corresponds with the result of the household economic survey analysis undertaken in 2012, as shown in Table 7.


Table 7 Gini Index, 2012



During the New Order regime, inequality—measured by people’s expenditure—was stable, from 0.35 in 1964–65 to 0.34 in 1990 (Akita et al. 1999, 202). However, it rose from the early 2000s (see Booth 2016, 170). The Badan Pusat Statistik (Central Bureau of Statistics, BPS) report states that it was 0.425 in 2012, measured in terms of the expenditure approach (BPS 2020, 170). Meanwhile, the analysis of income distribution in the 1,000 sampled households revealed an astonishing result: the Gini index for the six villages based on per capita income for 2012 was extremely high (0.55). Although both measurements show the increasing economic inequality from the early 2000s, villagers’ feelings of widening economic inequality may best be represented by the income rather than expenditure approach, as this calculates rich people’s savings (see Booth 2016, 185).

The fairly low level of economic inequality during the New Order regime was a direct impact of state patronage. As state patronage begs clients’ loyalty, the New Order regime attempted to ensure an even and proportionate material distribution among its clients. At the same time, the New Order also strictly constrained clients’ economic aggressiveness. The emergence of economically aggressive and independent groups would have raised many challenges within the context of the New Order’s supremacy. In this sense, middle-classness was determined not only by one’s connections with the state but also by one’s compliance with its order. Meanwhile, the lower class were excluded from most opportunities to climb the economic ladder, although their condition was slightly improved thanks to the increase in productivity of staple foods under the Green Revolution program. The unaggressive middle class and apathetic lower class helped to reduce economic inequality statistically.

Unpredictable political and economic circumstances since the late 1990s have overturned that landscape. The fall of the New Order regime, followed by a gradual erosion of state patronage, in tandem with the strengthening of the informal sector has opened up more exclusive economic opportunities for aspiring villagers to create wealth. Under the belief of jaman duit, “the age of money” (Antlöv 2005, 195), aggressive economic expansion and accumulation of assets became the main aspirations of the middle class. This was different from years past, when the rich were satisfied with being rent-seekers. Unfortunately, the new economic creativity in the informal sector through various types of entrepreneurship has not been accompanied by a new political creativity, which would potentially aid farmers in improving their livelihood through various democratic means. This condition is a result of the New Order’s long repression, which disorganized the farmers’ movement. Although the patron of businesspeople has shifted from the state to the market, the (small) farmers’ patrons remain the same: the heads of farmer groups. However, it is worth noting that these heads no longer function as instruments of the state in controlling farmers. Along with the increase in the size of the rural middle class, the uneven political and economic processes have increased inequality rather than decreased it.

VII Conclusion

The rapid expansion of the Indonesian rural middle class, as this paper has shown from the six villages studied, is not the result of sound economic growth after the 1997–98 financial crisis per se; it is a result of the gradual erosion of the pervasive state patronage that existed under patrimonialism. Suharto’s patrimonialism tended to benefit dominant rural groups (state clients) while discriminating against the common people, thus stifling the latter’s creativity. This landscape changed with the financial crisis. The fall of Suharto encouraged the new government to adopt a model of “good governance,” which is commonly translated as transparency, accountability, and the democratization of state institutions. This did not only minimize the role of the state, rendering it as a mere market facilitator that provided to the right institutions, but also created a friendly environment for business. The more inclusive opportunities available, in tandem with a new macroeconomic situation and the flourishing of the informal sector, paved the way for the lower class to become middle class through various entrepreneurial activities. The immediate impact of this was that the size of the middle class grew rapidly—from 6 percent in 1990 to almost 27 percent in 2012.

The availability of historical and ethnographic data helps to show more precisely some (unexpected) impacts of the growing middle class on rural life. First of all, we have seen that it engendered a new moral framework centered around jibaku and a respect for material affluence. This new form of morality eroded the old prejudices that largely viewed material affluence as dependent on rent-seeking practices. Although the new middle class started to change the face of villages, it also brought about the unanticipated outcome of stark economic inequality.

What we can learn from this case is that the democratization of state institutions, such as village governance, dismantled the phenomenon of strong state clientelism. Although this boosted the villagers’ economic creativity, their political creativity remained underdeveloped. Such a situation occurs when myriad small farmers and agricultural wage laborers, assumed to be economically vulnerable, cannot rely on more democratic means to enhance their well-being. In these circumstances, despite most villagers earning their income from a variety of economic activities, the agricultural sector becomes a pool for poor households. As the Indonesian economy grew moderately with the strengthening of the informal sector, any further expansion of the rural middle class might exacerbate rather than remedy inequality. The political, economic, social, and historical assessments in this study help to elucidate what has been taking place in the rural areas post-1998.

Accepted: February 14, 2020


My sincere thanks goes to Prof. Mizuno Kosuke for his supervision. I also thank Dr. Pujo Semedi and Dr. Jafar Suryomenggolo for the critical comments and suggestions on the earlier draft and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable criticism and comments.

Research for 2015 and 2016 was funded by Explorer Program, ASAFAS, Kyoto University.


Akita Takahiro; Lukman, R. Affandi; and Yamada Yukino. 1999. Inequality in the Distribution of Household Expenditures in Indonesia: A Theil Decomposition Analysis. Developing Economies 37(2): 197–221.

Antlöv, Hans. 2005. The New Rich and Cultural Tensions in Rural Indonesia. In Culture and Privilege in Capitalist Asia, edited by Michael Pinches, pp. 189–208. London: Routledge.

―. 2003. Village Government and Rural Development in Indonesia: The New Democratic Framework. Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 39(2): 193–214.

Asian Development Bank (ADB). 2010. The Rise of Asia’s Middle Class. In Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2010. Manila: Asian Development Bank., accessed June 22, 2016.

Badan Pusat Statistik [Central Bureau of Statistics, BPS]. 2020., accessed June 25, 2020.

Booth, Anne. 2016. Economic Change in Modern Indonesia: Colonial and Post-colonial Comparisons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crouch, Harold. 1979. Patrimonialism and Military Rule in Indonesia. World Politics 31(4): 571–587.

Demmers, Jolle; Jilberto, A. E. Fernandez; and Hogenboom, Barbara, eds. 2004. Good Governance in the Era of Global Neoliberalism: Conflict and Depoliticisation in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. London: Routledge.

Dick, Howard W. 1985. The Rise of a Middle Class and the Changing Concept of Equity in Indonesia: An Interpretation. Indonesia 39(April): 71–92.

Gerke, Solvay. 2002. Global Lifestyles under Local Conditions: The New Indonesian Middle Class. In Consumption in Asia: Lifestyle and Identities, edited by Chua Beng-Huat, pp. 135–158. Taylor & Francis e-Library. London: Routledge.

Goodman, David S. G.; and Robison, Richard. 1996. The New Rich in Asia: Economic Development, Social Status and Political Consciousness. In The New Rich in Asia: Mobile Phones, McDonald’s and Middle-Class Revolution, edited by Richard Robison and David S.G. Goodman, pp. 1–16. London: Routledge.

Goto Naoko. Forthcoming. Jasmine Farmers’ Groups in Pesantren Village: A Case Study. In Two Centuries of Agrarian, Economic, and Ecological Shifts in the North Coast of Java (1812–2012), edited by Gerben Nooteboom, Pujo Semedi, and Mizuno Kosuke. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.

Gunn, Simon; and Bell, Rachel. 2003. Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl. London: Phoenix.

Hadiz, Vedi; and Robison, Richard. 2005. Neo-liberal Reforms and Illiberal Consolidations: The Indonesian Paradox. Journal of Development Studies 41(2): 220–241.

Hart, Gillian. 1986. Power, Labor, and Livelihood: Processes of Change in Rural Java. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Heryanto, Ariel. 2005. The Years of Living Luxuriously: Identity Politics of Indonesia’s New Rich. In Culture and Privilege in Capitalist Asia, edited by Michael Pinches, pp. 160–188. London: Routledge.

Hüsken, Frans. 1996. Kesinambungan dan perubahan politik lokal: Pemerintahan desa dan pengendalian tanah serta tenaga kerja [The continuity and change of local politics: Village governance, land and labor control]. In Di bawah asap pabrik gula: Masyarakat desa di pesisir Jawa sepanjang abad ke-20 [Beneath the smoke of the sugar-mill: Javanese coastal communities during the twentieth century], edited by Kano Hiroyoshi, Frans Hüsken, and Djoko Suryo, pp. 259–283. Yogyakarta: AKATIGA and Gadjah Mada University Press.

―. 1989. Java: Social Differentiation, Food Production, and Agrarian Control. In Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia, edited by Gillian Hart, Andrew Turton, Benjamin White, with Brian Fegan and Lim Teck Ghee, pp. 303–331. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kano Hiroyoshi. Forthcoming. Household Income and Labor Migration. In Two Centuries of Agrarian, Economic, and Ecological Shifts in the North Coast of Java (1812–2012), edited by Gerben Nooteboom, Pujo Semedi, and Mizuno Kosuke. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.

KBBI (Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia/Indonesia Dictionary). n.d., accessed April 23, 2018.

King, Roger; Raynor, John; Cliff, Dallas; and Sparks, Geoffrey. 1981. The Middle Class. New York: Longman.

Kleden, Ignas. 1990. The Changing Political Leadership of Java. In State and Civil Society in Indonesia, edited by Arief Budiman, pp. 349–363. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

Kompas. 1990. Young Professionals of Jakarta: Millions in Salary, Lack of Hard Work. In The Politics of Middle Class Indonesia, edited by Richard Tanter and Kenneth Young, pp. 167–174. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

Kurasawa Aiko. 2015. The “Pseudo” Middle Class and Expanding Consumption in Indonesia. In Consuming Indonesia: Consumption in Indonesia in the Early 21st Century, edited by Kurasawa Aiko and William B. Horton, pp. vii–xix. Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

Luthfi, A. Nashih. 2018. Kekerasan kemanusiaan dan perampasan tanah pasca-1965 di Banyuwangi Jawa Timur [Grabbing the peasants’ land: Violence and counter-land reform in Banyuwangi, East Java, post–1965]. Archipel: Études interdisciplinaires sur le monde insulindien 95: 53–86.

Mackie, Jamie. 1990. Money and the Middle Class. In The Politics of Middle Class Indonesia, edited by Richard Tanter and Kenneth Young, pp. 96–122. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

McCarthy, John F. 2010. Processes of Inclusion and Adverse Incorporation: Oil Palm and Agrarian Change in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Journal of Peasant Studies 37(4): 821–850.

Mizuno Kosuke. 2016. The Macro Economy, the Rural Sector, and Sustainability. In Sustainability and Crisis at the Village: Agroforestry in West Java, Indonesia: The Talun-huma System and Rural Social Economy, edited by Mizuno Kosuke and Siti S. Mugniesyah, pp. 18–27. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.

―. n.d. The Indonesian Economy Post Lehman Shock: Some Results of a Macroeconomic Model Simulation. Unpublished manuscript.

Mortimer, Rex. 2006. Indonesian Communism under Sukarno: Ideology and Politics, 1959–1965. Singapore: Equinox.

Moskowitz, M. 2012. ‘Aren’t We All?’ Aspiration, Acquisition, and the American Middle Class. In The Making of the Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History, edited by A. Ricardo Lopez and Barbara Weinstein, pp. 75–86. London and Durham: Duke University Press.

Pinches, Michael. 2005. Cultural Relations, Class and the New Rich of Asia. In Culture and Privilege in Capitalist Asia, edited by Michael Pinches, pp. 1–55. London: Routledge.

Priyarsono, D. Savio; Lestari, T. Kanti; and Dewi, D. Ananta. 2010. Industrialization and De-industrialization in Indonesia 1983–2008: A Kaldorian Approach. Journal of Indonesian Economy and Business 25(2): 143–154.

Republik Indonesia, Kementerian Keuangan. 2018. Buku II: Nota Keuangan, beserta Rancangan Anggaran Pendapatan dan Belanja Negara [Book 2: Financial note, along with draft of state budget, fiscal year 2018]. Jakarta: Kementerian Keuangan, Republik Indonesia.

Robison, Richard. 1996. The Middle Class and the Bourgeoisie in Indonesia. In Mobile Phones, McDonald’s and Middle Class Revolution, edited by David S. Goodman and Richard Robison, pp. 79–101. London: Routledge.

Rosser Jr., J. B.; Rosser, M. V.; and Ahmed, E. 2000. Income Inequality and the Informal Economy in Transition Economies. Journal of Comparative Economics 28(1): 156–171.

Savage, Mike; Barlow, James; Dickens, Peter; and Fielding, Tony. 1992. Property Bureaucracy and Culture: Middle-Class Formation in Contemporary Britain. London: Routledge.

Savirani, Amalinda. 2015. Business and Politics in Provincial Indonesia: The Batik and Construction Sector in Pekalongan, Central Java. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Amsterdam.

Schiavo, L. Lidia; and Pierre Vercauteren. 2016. Good Governance, Neoliberalism, Inequality within International Organizations Discourse: A Critical Approach. Journal of Social Science for Policy Implications 4(2): 35–48.

Syaukani, H. R.; Gaffar, A.; and Rasyid, M. R. 2002. Otonomi daerah dalam negara kesatuan [Regional autonomy in the unitary state]. Yogyakarta: Kerjasama Pustaka Pelajar [dan] Pusat Pengkajian Etika Politik dan Pemerintahan.

Thompson, M. R. 2007. Reform after Reformasi: Middle Class Movements for Good Governance after Democratic Revolutions in Southeast Asia. Working Papers in Contemporary Asian Studies, No. 21. Centre for East and South–East Asian Studies, Lund University.

Van Klinken, Gerry V. 2014. Introduction: Democracy, Markets and the Assertive Middle. In In Search of Middle Indonesia: Middle Classes in Provincial Towns, edited by Gerry van Klinken and Ward Berenschot, pp. 1–34. Leiden: Brill.

Vickers, Adrian. 2013. A History of Modern Indonesia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, Andrew. 2012. Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wertheim, W. F. 1955. Changes in Indonesia’s Social Stratification. Pacific Affairs 28(1): 41–52.

White, Benjamin; and Wiradi, G. 1989. Agrarian and Nonagrarian Bases of Inequality in Nine Javanese Villages. In Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia, edited by Gillian Hart, Andrew Turnton, Benjamin White, with Brian Fegan and Lim Teck Ghee, pp. 266–302. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Young, Kenneth. 1990. Middle Bureaucrats, Middle Peasants, Middle Class? The Extra-urban Dimension. In The Politics of Middle Class Indonesia, edited by Richard Tanter and Kenneth Young, pp. 147–166. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

Yulisman, Linda. 2014. Baking Industry Growth Set to Rise on More Stable Economy. Jakarta Post. October 24., accessed June 25, 2017.

Suara Merdeka. 1994. July 11.

―. 1993. January 6.

1) In the following period, the government issued Law No. 32/2000 and Government Regulation 72/2005.

2) Recently, the recruitment of village officials has been done through an open test.

3) See Antlöv (2003) and Law No. 6/2014 on villages.

4) Presidential Instruction No. 6/1970 forced civil servants, including the village apparatus, to support Golkar under the idea of mono-loyalty (Antlöv 2003, 196).

5) Mapan is, to some degree, congruent with the American rhetoric for middle-class living conditions, that is, comfort consisting of common and inexpensive means of enjoyment (F. Spencer Baldwin in Moskowitz 2012, 81).

6) Solvay Gerke (2002) has a different stratification model based on consumption.

7) I derive this concept from Mike Savage et al. (1992), who argue that people can be classified as middle class based on the possession of an asset, whether property, organization, or skill.

8) For 1980, Jamie Mackie assumed that households possessing either a motorcycle or a television could be classified as middle class (Mackie 1990). Using such a definition, middle-class households made up around 9 percent and 5 percent respectively. For 1990, such indicators had become too low and were consequently no longer relevant. Thus, this study argues that for 1990, rural middle-class households were indicated by the simultaneous possession of a motorcycle and a television.

9) Exchange rate 2012.

10) The pseudonyms for these villages are: Karyokasil, A; Parigaga, B; Kidulratan, C; Karanggondang, D; Trimakmur, E; and Trukosari, F (see Map 1).

11) This was a collaborative research study by three institutions: P3PK UGM of Indonesia, IOC-UT of Japan, and Casa of the Netherlands.

12) This research was funded by the government of Japan and supervised by Prof. Mizuno Kosuke, Prof. Kano Hiroyoshi, and Dr. Pujo Semedi. All surveyors were Gadjah Mada University students.

13) The number of households sampled was around 10 percent in 1990 and 12 percent in 2012. The samples were determined through a random sampling method. I was personally involved in the 2012 survey as an assistant researcher.

14) In Banyuwangi District, the official report stated that 6,008 were killed and 50,727 imprisoned (Luthfi 2018, 65).

15) There were three PKI activists in Trukosari. Two of them were sent to Buru island, while one was imprisoned in Pemalang.

16) Kenneth Young provides an example of another trick practiced by village elites that is relevant to this issue. The KUD is responsible for buying rice, which is then to be sold at the government floor price to the local government purchasing warehouse (Subdolog). But it is not unusual for the village elites, in their capacity as elected managers of the KUD, to subcontract the entire rice acquisition process to private traders (Young 1990, 157).

17) A survey carried out by Kompas in the early 1980s on 70 respondents, consisting of top- and middle-level managers and professionals, showed how strong state clientelism was. The report concluded that 60.6 percent of respondents believed that their career was determined by “connections” or their ability to make use of connections (Kompas 1990).

18) This was eventually terminated by Presidential Instruction No. 5/1998.

19) Burning sugarcane fields was a typical example of this action.

20) In the case of jasmine farmer groups, the leader took around 20 percent of farmers’ aggregate revenue (Goto, forthcoming).

21) Feeling economically secure, most of the wealthy farmers in Trukosari do not join farmer groups.

22) Bagus, Karsono, and Karto (the heads of farmer groups) became the canvassers for Samuri (PDIP), Tarjono (PDIP), and Sumono (Golkar). All were chosen in the general election of 2014. Tarto, a chosen parliamentary member from Gerindra, also used his younger brother’s position as the head of a harvesting group to gain votes for himself.

23) Interview with Pak Bagus, September 12, 2016, Trukosari village.

24) In the production process, one small bucket of batter could be made into 12 boxed cakes (each box containing one round cake). If three or four types of cake were made daily, they sold at least 36 boxes each day. Since the average price of each box was at least 20,000 rupiah, the stall would receive 720,000 rupiah a day if all cakes sold.


Vol. 9, No. 3, Hanli Zhou and Volker Grabowsky


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Demarcation of the Yunnan-Burma Tai Minority Area in Warry’s Report of 1891–97: A Critical Evaluation against the Background of Contemporary Chinese Historiography*

Hanli Zhou** and Volker Grabowsky***

*This article is part of the research results from the project (No. 20BZS141) of The National Social Science Fund of China (Zhongguo guojia shehui kexue jijin: 中国国家社会科学基金).
**周寒丽, Asien-Afrika-Institut, Universität Hamburg, Abteilung für Sprachen und Kulturen Südostasiens, Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, Flügel Ost, 20146 Hamburg, Germany Corresponding author’s e-mail: edicezhou[at]
***Asien-Afrika-Institut, Universität Hamburg, Abteilung für Sprachen und Kulturen Südostasiens,
Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, Flügel Ost, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_301

William Warry (1854–1936) was a British intelligence officer who was sent to investigate Upper Burma and southwest China in 1889. The primary purpose of his mission was to understand the local history and society and, in particular, the Chinese influence in these areas. His report was intended to help the British government devise proper strategies for the Yunnan-Burma frontier negotiation with China. Warry’s mission should be read in the context of the Chinese tusi system of “aboriginal commission,” the imperial government’s century-long strategy of governing the mainly non-Han frontier region of southwest China, which did not require a delineated border. This eventually turned into a serious crisis with the arrival of Western colonial powers who wanted to enter inland China via the Indochinese Peninsula.

Keywords: William Warry, demarcation, Yunnan-Burma, frontier, tusi system, Tai


In 1885, after winning the last of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars, the British annexed Burma as part of British India. The British government then sent a note to urge the Chinese Qing court to sign a treaty recognizing its sovereignty. Nevertheless, the colonial control did not manage to penetrate the hill areas along the northern and eastern frontier zones of the defunct Burmese Empire, leaving states like Shan and Kayah de facto autonomous. Several Tai principalities near Yunnan, which were placed under a Sino-Burmese joint overlordship, continued to follow the prior arrangement. In the hope of curbing Chinese influence in the region, the British sent a request to the Qing court to delimit the shared border—which ran 2,000 km—with a treaty. The Chinese minister in London (1882–85), Zeng Jize, was tasked with the demarcation of the border between Yunnan and Burma. Although his suggestions were widely accepted by the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the proposed borderline was not added to the Sino-British treaty signed in 1886 in Beijing. With the issue unresolved, the British government sent William Warry, a top intelligence officer, on a fact-finding mission to investigate the border areas between Upper Burma and southwestern Yunnan in 1888.

Never published, Warry’s report1) is an original archival source. It now lies in the Asian and African Studies Section2) of the British Library under the shelfmark “Mss Eur Photo Eur 384, (1878–1903)” in the European Manuscript Private Papers section. Unfortunately, this unique firsthand report has not garnered much attention among Western scholars in the field, let alone Chinese historians.

Warry’s report carried high weight in the negotiations of the China-Burma border, which began in 1894. It provides rare accounts of the political, social, ethnographic, and economic situations in Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan during the critical period of the late 1880s and early 1890s, right before the current border was defined in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The British and the Qing court signed the Yunnan-Burma frontier treaty after Warry had returned from his journey.

Previous Western missions in Yunnan focused mainly on the facilitation of practical commercial routes from mainland Southeast Asia to Yunnan and beyond, such as the two missions in 1882 led by Cameron (Tracts, Vol. 606) and Archibald Ross Colquhoun and Charles Wahad (Tracts, Vol. 606). In December 1892, James George Scott, accompanied by Clement Ainslie, led another mission starting from Lashio (Ainslie 1893, 1). In his report, Scott described the geographic aspect of the routes running through the Shan States3) following the course of the Salween River (Tai: Mae Khong) like a gazetteer. He also noted numerous random facts on local polities without a clear focus.

The little-researched Warry report is, therefore, a valuable primary source that can help researchers understand the background and evolution of the Yunnan-Burma frontier formation. In this article, the authors compare the report with various original archival materials to give a critical evaluation of Warry’s report in the context of contemporary Chinese sources. The article also explores the very few traces that the Tai peoples in the region left in their historical records. The concluding section balances the various dissenting voices to draw a more comprehensive picture of the border negotiation, with the hope of getting one step closer to representing the historical truth.

Historical Background

Warry’s Mission

A British intelligence officer, William Warry (1854–1936) was sent to Upper Burma and southwestern Yunnan to carry out a thorough investigation to provide the factual basis for future border negotiations between the British and the Chinese. Apart from that, little is known about his life. A short description of him can be found in the British Library’s Asian and African Studies’ Catalogue,4) as well as Grabowsky (2006, 573–593):

William Warry (1854–1936), acting assistant Chinese secretary, Peking 1881–82, special service, Government of India from 1885, political officer, Bhamo, Mandalay and Schwegu (the northernmost town of Kachin State) 1887–89, adviser to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, on Chinese affairs 1890–1904; including photocopies of maps of the Trans-Salween Section of the Burmo–Chinese frontier by Warry.

The American gemologist and award-winning author Richard Hughes (1999, 15–35) quotes from Crosthwaite (1912, 355):

He belonged to the Chinese consular service, spoke Chinese well, and understood that difficult people as well as an Englishman can. He was on most friendly terms with the Chinese in Burma, and could trust himself to them without fear.

Later, in 2016, the Chinese scholar Li Yi (2016, 135–154) noted that Warry “obtained first-hand knowledge of China and the Chinese people, along with Chinese-language skills, from his work in the Chinese Consular Service.” He was an adviser on Chinese affairs who had “joined the frontier missions in India, Tibet, Burma and China” since 1885. Moreover, Sao (1965, 278–312) quotes some valuable records from Warry’s report in Chapter XIII of his book addressing the boundary with China, as Warry afforded a good deal of useful information on the Southwest Yunnan. From these snippets of information, Warry can be assumed to have been an excellent intelligence officer on the Yunnan-Burma borderline issue.

Even though we do not know much about Warry’s personal life, Warry’s report is a valuable primary source for the study of Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan in the late nineteenth century. Since the report was not published, very few know about its existence. However, it did come to the attention of one of the co-authors of this paper in the early 1990s when he was doing postdoctoral research on the history of Lan Na (Northern Thailand) in the British Library. Upon careful examination, he was stunned by its highly precise and sensitive description of the politics, society, economy, and ethnic make-up of Yunnan.

Demarcation of the China-Burma Border

Two reasons prompted the frontier negotiation between China and Britain. First, after its victory in the last of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars (in 1885), the British government urged the Qing court to sign a treaty that claimed Burma proper should become a colony as part of British India. However, in reality, the British were unable to exercise control over the whole country, especially the Shan States and the hill areas of Karen and Kachin in the north and east. Some of these territories had retained a tributary relationship between the Shan princes and the Qing court.5) The British were afraid that the Chinese might interfere by claiming these territories under this pretext.

To incentivize the Qing court, the British Foreign Office offered concession as leverage for a durable borderline and trade relations. In 1885 Zeng Jize (曾紀澤 1839–90), the Chinese minister in London thus wrote a memorial proposing a solution to the Yunnan-Burma border issue. However, this particular concession did not find its way into the Burma Terms, which were signed in the 12th year of the Guangxu reign (July 24, 1886) in Beijing. Zeng’s, as well as Britain’s potential concessions, were kept in Zeng’s memorial, which Xue Fucheng (薛福成 1838–94) (compiled, 1975, 9) made public when he took over Zeng’s position of the Chinese ambassador in London on 25 Month 1st Guangxu Year 17 (March 5, 1891).6)

The Burma Terms stipulate in the third convention “the frontier between Burmah and China to be marked by a Delimitation Commission” (British and Foreign State Papers [1885–1886], Vol. 77, 123). As mentioned above, Warry’s mission was sent to Upper Burma in 1888. Three years later, Yao Wendong (1853–1929) was sent to southwest Yunnan according to the Burma Terms, known in Chinese as the Peking Convention (Bei jing tiao yue 北京條約).7)

The China-Burma borderline was to be fixed after a survey of the boundary from both sides. Therefore, the still unresolved frontier issue was the main objective of Warry’s mission. This crucial background is reflected in Warry’s report, which emphasizes:

It would no doubt be inconvenient to admit China to the sole possession of a country affording so excellent a base for intrigue and indirect operations against us. We should be undertaking a heavy task and incurring a large responsibility. We should have to maintain order, to punish aggression, and to protect, single-handed, several trade routes leading from Burma to China. The Kachins are a savage race of mountaineers, without civilization or law, recognizing no common Chief, turbulent and warlike by nature, and living to a large extent by plunder and blackmail levied on trading caravans. They need to be sternly repressed, and they will only be kept in order by constant pressure both from the Chinese and the Burmese side. (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Burmo [Burma]-Chinese Boundary, dated the 14th May 1888)

Warry also acknowledged Chinese influence in these parts of Upper Burma dating from the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271–1368). A considerable tract of the Shan country appeared to have acknowledged, for several centuries, the suzerainty of the Chinese Empire. These Shan or Tai polities were named Mengting, Mengyang, and Mupang.8) However, Warry also conceded that Chinese influence in the region had declined since the middle of the Qing Dynasty, i.e., since the late eighteenth century (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Burmo-Chinese Boundary, dated the 14th May 1888). Thus, additional important purposes of Warry’s mission were to investigate the local history and society, the rubber trade issues, and the Chinese influences in this area. His report aimed at providing the British government with vital information to devise proper strategies for gaining control over Upper Burma and negotiating the Yunnan-Burma frontier with China.

The second reason that prompted frontier negotiations between China and Britain was that the Pacification Commissions (in the frame of the so-called tusi system 土司制度) caused border issues between China and Burma. Foon Ming Liew-Herres explains the Chinese tusi system:9)

The tusi system can be traced back to the so-called “prefectures under loose reins” established during the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) periods, to integrate the “foreigners or barbarians”, namely tribal peoples, of the southern border regions into the Chinese system of rule.

The tusi or so-called “Pacification Commissions” system was established in the Yuan period (1271–1368) and lasted until the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1636–1911) periods. The tusi’s places were inhabited predominantly by non-Han Chinese, the minority people. In Yunnan and upper Mainland Southeast Asia, the local rulers and princes were called cao fa or cao mòm in the local Tai language. In Chinese sources, their names were prefixed with zhao or dao or tao. . . . The local administration of the domain under the tusi, i.e., where internal affairs were concerned, was not under the direct control of the provincial governor. The local Tai rulers called cao fa were allowed to rule their subjects according to their own customs. They were the local kings and had authority to sentence their people to death without having to report to the Ministry of Justice under the Ming court. (Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 26)

The tusi system was an effective way for the Chinese Empire to govern the southwest frontier. It did not require a clear borderline, as the tributary system was put in place to administer the minority areas in the southwest, largely inhabited by non-Han peoples. The Qing court thus did not have the modern concept of a borderline prior to the arrival of Western colonial powers.

The tributary system, as Higgins (1992, 30) emphasizes, was a traditional Chinese system for managing foreign relations with neighbouring subordinate polities. The tributary system, the origins of which might be traced to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220), has been called a “system of ritualized interstate relations” (Mote 1999, 383) in which ancient China was believed to be the centre of the world. To secure the safety of its Central Plains territories (comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Huanghe River), the Chinese Empire needed the provinces, vassal states, tributary states, as well as neighbouring countries to send their local products as a tribute and keep a stable hierarchical relationship. Meanwhile, the Chinese imperial court was expected to bestow official ranks to the rulers of subordinate polities and give them valuable gifts, the value of which had to exceed that of local products provided by these polities. China thus sent silk, tea, paper money, and other goods to its tributary states as was appropriate (for details, see Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 28–40).

Since the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the tributary system had been transformed into an economic relationship. Scholars of Chinese history believe that the tributary system constituted an essential administrative feature of the Chinese Empire. Hamashita Takeshi (1999, 31) points out that the tributary system was an extension of the relationship between the central government and the administration at the local level. He designed a diagram defining the chain of government as follows: central government–prefectures–tusi or aboriginal officials–vassal states–tributary states–mutual trade relationships. This hierarchical system was an organic whole. The Chinese Empire exercised a centralized political and administrative authority: of paramount importance was local governance in the Chinese core areas, followed by the tusi system in the non-Han areas, and finally, the tributary system aimed at governing semi-independent states via mutual trade to maintain good relationships with these countries. The Chinese Empire was at the centre of the world, surrounded by a myriad of inner and outer provinces, vassal and tributary states, as well as other, foreign, countries. Within this structure of intra-state relations, the tusi system was part of the tributary system.

Since intermarriage, conflicts, wars, and the changing of tributary relationships would cause the border to change regularly, there were no fixed or stable frontiers separating the different polities.10) Even though the tributary system was an effective way to guard and maintain the Chinese Empire, the lack of a clear demarcation line among the various vassal states was a significant problem when the power of the centre court declined. Therefore, the issue of unstable and unclear borderlines between China and Burma became a serious problem only after the arrival of Western colonial powers seeking to gain economic access to inland China via the Indochinese Peninsula. The European powers, notably Britain and France, had internalized a concept of clearly defined borderlines separating the undivided and undisputed sovereignties of states since the Westphalian Treaty of 1648. This Western idea of a modern nation-state was transplanted to areas outside Europe, including Asia, by European colonial powers in the late nineteenth century, the heyday of Western imperialism. Such a concept was very different from the indigenous Asian concepts of frontier and border grounded in the historical experience of the peoples in East and Southeast Asia. The imposition of the idea of a modern nation-state on these premodern empires, therefore, constituted a big challenge for Asian countries, especially for China, as the European powers refuted the idea of shared and multiple sovereignties and overlapping frontier zones.11)

That is the main reason why the borderline negotiation became an essential task for both China and Britain. In the following sections, the authors first present the main sources pertaining to historical events. Second, they illustrate the negotiations by studying the three disputed areas between Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan highlighted in Warry’s report, while comparing his observations and statements with Chinese historical records. Third, they examine the final agreements between the British government and the Qing court.


The primary sources used for this article fall into three categories: (1) British archival documents, (2) contemporary (i.e., late nineteenth-century) Chinese government reports, and (3) written records left by indigenous Tai peoples living in the China-Burma borderlands. The principal British source, as already mentioned, is Warry’s report. Warry recorded his mission and investigation when he visited Upper Burma with his team in 1888. His perceptive observations, concrete descriptions, and analytic reflections—all considered highly confidential—reveal fascinating insights into the complex situation in Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan at the end of the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, the Yunnan-Burmese frontier report in Appendix to Memorandum on Questions of Chief Importance in the American and Chinese Department was extracted from British Documents on Foreign Affairs (Nish et al. 1989/1995). This document is another reliable source of firsthand reports. Other important British archival materials include Sir Robert Hart’s telegrams and letters (Chen 1991; 1995) about the negotiations between China and Britain. They also need to be closely examined.

For the Intelligence Department of Britain, it was a challenge to keep up with all the reports and correspondence. Correspondence was dealt with in two ways when delivered to the colonial government of Burma:

The various departments of the Government would hold weekly/monthly meetings where events would be discussed based on information received from all quarters. The written accounts of these meetings, including transcriptions of the documentation under discussion, were known as “Consultations” or “Proceedings.” These records contain much of significance for minority histories of Burma and will be dealt with more fully later in this guide. These reports could be transmitted directly to London from Burma from 1871 onwards, although they would also be sent to the Government of India.

Until Burma was given administrative autonomy in 1935, communications other than Proceedings had to be transmitted first to the Government of India at Fort William, rather than directly to London. Again, not everything that had been sent to the Government of Burma would be forwarded in this way and another process of selection would take place. Correspondence could include a wide variety of Enclosures (diaries, journals, reports, maps, etc.) which were deemed significant to the subject of the cover letter. The Government of India might discuss these communications in their own Proceedings or else they might send some of the items to London as General Correspondence. (Sadan 2008, 11–13)

This means that all correspondence was categorized and submitted step by step. Only “the most significant correspondence was chosen to be forwarded to London, where it would be registered in the correspondence files of the appropriate department” (Sadan 2008, 12). It was in this manner that the British government used Warry’s report and Scott’s papers as well as the correspondence of other missions.

As for English academic studies of the China-Burma border issue, J. J. G. Syatauw (1961, 122–123) mentions that there was never any mission sent to investigate the situation in Upper Burma after the Burma Terms. He was probably not aware of the Warry report kept in the India Records Office of the British Library. Reclaimed materials that explicitly mention Warry’s report are Hughes (1999) and Li (2016), both of which point out that Warry was an expert on Chinese affairs.

Theoretical concepts of tributary relations have been developed by Hamashita (1999) and Higgins (1992), whose ideas are useful in understanding the tributary system in ancient China. Concerning the concept of “frontier” in mainland Southeast Asia, Thongchai Winichakul (1994), Andrew Walker (2009), as well as Alexander Horstmann and Reed Wadley (2006) have developed profound ideas about the frontier issues on the Indochinese Peninsula.

Chinese primary sources include official records such as the QSL (Qing shi lu 清實錄), or Veritable Records of the Qing Dynasty, an authentic record that documented the emperor’s daily life. Basically, “the ‘Veritable Records’ are based on the ‘Diaries of Activity and Repose’, called the Qi ju zhu 起居注, which are the ‘Audience Records’” (Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 12–13). Therefore, QSL is more reliable than other documents.

QSG (Qing shi gao 清史稿), The Draft of History of the Qing Dynasty, was compiled using the Chinese traditional chronological writing system. It is called a “draft” because it had not been completed when it was published in 1927. The history of a dynasty could only be written by its successor following the traditional philosophy for writing history. Although QSG contains many mistakes and biased viewpoints, it has substantial materials that are highly beneficial to the academic world. In this article, one memorial of Xue in QSG is adopted as an important argument.

Also included in the research are the Collections of Zeng’s Telegrams (Zeng Jize Handian 曾紀澤函電), Xue (1887–94), Yao (1892), and Xue (comp., 1975). All these officials were directly involved in the border negotiations and investigations of the situation along the border. As for official records, Wang Yanwei et al. (1987) edited the historical data pertaining to diplomatic activities during the Qing Dynasty, and thus these should be considered as crucial primary sources.

Chinese studies on the Sino-Burma frontier issue have abounded since the early twentieth century. Two contradictory opinions have been expressed regarding Xue’s negotiations with the British and the clauses between China and Britain. One side, consisting of scholars such as Zhang Chengsun (1937, 50), Yin Mingde (1933, 418), Fang Guoyu (1987, 1026), and Yu Dingbang (2000, 240), heavily condemns Xue as a quisling. They mainly blame him for losing hundreds of square miles of southwestern territories. The other side, with scholars such as Lü Yiran (1995, 57–72) and Zhang Zijian (2007, 108–116), praises Xue’s efforts. Among the scholars on the latter side is Zhu Shaohua (2007, 43–51), who argues that Xue did his best to maintain the southwest territories by taking back Cheli and Menglian,12) keeping Kokang (old Bhamo), and even expanding the southwest territory of Yunnan. These articles and books were published mostly after the 1990s, based on numerous primary Chinese and English resources. They are essential pieces of recent scholarship on the Yunnan-Burma frontier issues.

Indigenous Tai records exist mainly in the form of their chronicles. The Tai people have their tradition of recording their history, culture, and religion. It is called tamnan (ตำนาน: Chronicle) or phün/pün (พื้น), rendered into English as “chronicle.” A manuscript titled Historical Events in Moeng Laem (Lik Phuen Chao Hò Kham Moeng Laem: ลีกพื้นเจ้าหอคำเมืองแลม in Tai) records briefly: “In 1885, the British occupied Mandalay.”13) In 1890 the British came to Moeng Laem and stayed in Mang Jiang. In 1896 a British aeroplane landed in Na Lai Ang.14) In 1898 the British came to Moeng Laem and surveyed the boundary, from the Nan Ka River to Lai Sanmeng (border of Moeng Laem, Chiang Rung, and Moeng Yang).

The Gengma tusi Han Futing and the story of his family, the territory of Gengma, and its history are valuable firsthand resources. In the end, there is a brief mention of the Anglo-Chinese border negotiations in the Jengtung (Chiang Tung) State Chronicle edited and translated by Sao Sāimöng Mangrāi (1981, 277).

All in all, what was the Qing court’s reaction during the period 1885–94? What kinds of negotiation strategies did the Chinese and the British pursue? What were their goals? Where exactly were the disputed areas? What was their disagreement? The authors will briefly address all these questions.

The Qing Court’s Reaction during 1885–94 and the Disputed Areas between Yunnan and Burma

The Concept of “Frontier”

At the outset, it is essential to provide a definition of the term “frontier,” which further poses the question: What is considered the frontier of a nation-state?

Zhu (2007, 1) answers that a frontier can be seen as a symbol for a nation-state that is essential to its sovereignty. Frontiers are regarded as demarcation lines separating different countries and states. The concept of a frontier appeared when the idea of the nation-state arose in the early nineteenth century. C. Pat Giersch (2006, 14) defines a frontier “as a territory or zone in which multiple peoples meet; at least one group is intrusive, the others indigenous.” In keeping with Giersch’s observation, most parts of the frontier of China—whether imperial China or the modern PRC—are inhabited by ethnic minorities. This is particularly true for Yunnan Province, where ethnic minorities such as Tai, Mon-Khmer (i.e., Bulang and Wa), and Tibeto-Burman (i.e., Hani) have been living along the frontier for hundreds of years.15) They can be seen in this context as the indigenous group, intruded upon by Han immigrants. Integration in these areas of Yunnan Province has become an important issue.

In the case of Southeast Asia, Thongchai (1994) puts forward the concept of “geo-body.” He argues that the embodiment of a nation is not merely equal to a nation’s territory but also includes the cognitive image of a nation’s territory—which is represented through maps and images, thus making it recognizable and imaginable—in the minds of its citizens. This image of the nation’s territory is a principal source of “pride, loyalty, love, passion, bias, hatred, reason, unreason” among members of that nation (Thongchai 1994, 17). Thongchai developed the concept with Siam as a case study. He argues that in order to keep the sovereignty of its core area, Siam had to give up distant districts that were hard to administer. To an extent, because of the Mandala system, Siam did not see its borderline as an independent entity as Western countries did in the nineteenth century. After ceding the trans-Mekong territories in present-day Laos to France in 1893, King Chulalongkorn remarked:

The loss of those margins along the border of the phraratcha-anachak [the royal kingdom] which we could not look after anyway, was like the loss of our fingertips. They are distant from our heart and torso, and it is these we must protect to our utmost ability. (Thongchai 1994, 134)

Horstmann and Wadley (2006, 3) provide another perspective:

These ideas about boundaries and territoriality are particularly important in the contemporary world, where social groups aim continually to define and redefine the relations between social and physical space. People living on the fringes of the nation-state—by their very existence—question its monopoly of identification and help to transform concepts of nationalism that are otherwise taken for granted. Their routine practices of crossing international borders have important implications for our understanding of the spatial and social organization of society and culture.

There is no doubt that the conception of the boundary is essential for the functioning of a modern state. Without clear boundaries and their protection, a modern state would hardly be able to exert its undivided and undisputed sovereignty over its citizens. As many frontier areas were—and still are—inhabited by a diverse multiethnic population, of which the state often possessed only poor knowledge during the pre-modern period, many newly emerging nation-states were eager to acquire ethnographic knowledge about such peoples in order to secure and strengthen their “geo-bodies” from the late nineteenth century until the early twentieth.

In general, a frontier can be defined as the national margin, inhabited by different ethnic groups. A typical example is southwest China, which was—and is—inhabited by various aboriginal people. Intermarriage and conflicts among different local rulers could change the borderlines. Tributary relations was a useful economic strategy to help the Qing court guard its southwest territory (Giersch 2006, 13).

The Qing Court’s Reaction

From the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, Yunnan faced borderline conflicts with both Burma and Vietnam, as well as parts of present-day Laos, as the indigenous ethnic groups did not integrate well into the province. The disputed area between Yunnan and Burma was located mainly in the tusi territory, which was inhabited mainly by the Tai and Mon-Khmer. As long as the tributary system was in place, the Qing court saw no need to define a clear borderline. This attitude was in line with the traditional diplomatic policy of imperial China: Gu zhe tian zi shou zai si yi 古者,天子守在四夷,16) which was translated by James Legge (1939, 700) as “anciently, the defences of the sons of Heaven were the rude (savage) tribes on every side of the Kingdom.” Thus, “all tusi and vassal states were considered properties of the Tian zi (天子, son of heaven)” (Zhu 2007, 26). Simply put, the Qing court expected its vassal states to guard the country, even though the vassal states might have carried on the tributary relationship only out of formality. Such a Sino-centric mentality played a vital role in the Qing court’s diplomatic strategy toward the Yunnan-Burma frontier issue. With this background in mind, it can be understood that even though the Qing court produced a map of Yunnan Province in 1864 (Map 1), the borderline that was drawn by no means denoted the genuine frontier.



Map 1  Yunnan Province in 1864 (Tongzhi Year 3)

Source: Library of Congress.


Two major historical events contributed to the Yunnan-Burma frontier dispute. First, after the Luchuan-Pingmian Campaigns,17) the Ming court set up eight barriers in Kachin State.18) The four barriers located on the upper banks of the Daying River (Taping River, or Ta Hkaw Hka in Kachin) were Wanren (萬仞), Shenhu (神戶), Jushi (巨石), and Tongbi (銅壁), which fall in today’s Yingjiang County, Dehong Dai, and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. The other four, Tiebi (鐵壁), Huju (虎踞), Tianma (天馬), and Hanlong (漢龍), were along the banks of the lower reaches of the Daying River, most of which was demarcated into the Kachin State of Burma in 1960. However, Zhang (1937, 23) remarked:


All these eight barriers acted only as points of control for the tusi on the outskirts to prevent an invasion from Burma. These were not considered the frontier of Yunnan-Burma.

The second event that contributed to the border dispute was that by the end of the Sino-Burmese War (1765–69) in the reign of Qianlong, an agreement was reluctantly concluded to both sides’ disappointment.19) While the Qing court was displeased with Burma not paying tribute, Burma was dissatisfied that only the control of the tusi of Mong Kawng (Menggong) was transferred while Theinni (Mubang) and Bhamo (Bamo) still belonged to the Qing court.20) However, the two sides could not afford to fight again.21) The situation persisted until April 1788, when Burma resumed paying tribute to the Qing court to counterbalance the rise of Siam. To return the gesture, Qianlong bestowed the seals of Theinni and Bhamo on the Burmese king. This could be interpreted as ceding the three tusi territories to Burma. However:


[The Qing court] let the three Commissions be under Burmese control without any concerns. That was because Burma had already submitted [to the Qing court]. It would remain loyal and obedient for generations to come. These territories (the three tusi—Chiang Tung, Theinni and Bhamo, as well as Meng Yang and Meng Gong) became vassals of Burma, and by association, vassals of ours as well. (Li 2001, 12)

Map 2 is a modern map of Yunnan annotated by the authors with the hatched lines to show the un-demarcated area for precise comparison. The areas in sections A, B, and C are barriers alongside the Tai and Mon-Khmer inhabited areas, while sections D and E show Mengting Prefecture, Cheli Pacification Commission, and Menglian Sub-Pacification Commission. The Qing court began to lose control of these distant places in the early nineteenth century. The areas now belong to the Shan States of Burma, inhabited predominantly by Wa people.



Map 2 Yunnan Provincial Administration

Source: Xingqiu Map (2009).


QSL records on 14 Month 12th Guangxu Year 10 (January 29, 1885):


[The emperor issues a decree to] the military subjects: “Zeng Jize presented a memorial by telegraph”: The Burmese king is fatuous, and his country is plunged into chaos. There are some Chinese immigrants having taken possession of Bhamo city. . . . If [they] are conspirators, it seems better to pacify these Chinese, therefore Yunnan’s border [should] expand, to reach the [Salween] river which flows into the ocean, so that an advance border would be created. It is better to negotiate with Britain the issue of border expansion at an early date. (QSL, GX 10/12/14, 54, 837 a-b)

Nevertheless, the Qing court refused this suggestion and instead advocated a more cautious approach:


[The emperor issues a decree again]: To telegraph Zeng Jize: [His] telegraphy is already known [to me]. [Our] court has never made any effort to strategize for the affairs of distant [countries]. (Note: This means that an invasion was never on the agenda of the Imperial Court.) Isn’t it therefore preposterous to dispatch [our] army for the sole sake of broadening [our] territory? . . . If the British department refers to this matter, reply in accord to the court’s intention. Telegraph. (QSL, GX 10/12/14, 54, 838 a)

A few months later, on 14 Month 9th Guangxu Year 11 (October 21, 1885), Zeng petitioned again, advocating a more offensive stance concerning a westward expansion of the borderline:


The British have occupied southern Burma for a long time. Now [they] conspire to get Burma’s [Burma] north, to prevent the area from being seized by France. . . . [We should] take Bhamo and establish a station on the upper reaches of the Nu River (Salween River) to conduct trade. Do not allow the British to come close to our border. . . . (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 61, 16)

Later, Cen Yuying (1829–89), who was the governor of both Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces in 1873–75 and 1881–89, issued a memorial on 4 Month 5th Guangxu Year 12 (June 5, 1886):


On April 2, the tusi in Renzuo area of Burma sent ten representatives, including A Mayi and Fa Shengnong, to submit a petition letter written in Burmese. Upon inquiry, [they] claimed the British had taken the capital of Burma unrighteously. The Burmese were displaced. [They] beg [me] to draw up a memorial for the Heaven court to send troops to rescue [them] or send ministers to mediate with Britain; to [help them] sustain the Burmese King’s lineage. . . . If [they] cannot save their country, [they] would lead their people to submit to [us]. They beg to be Chinese citizens. [I] have checked [their] statement which corresponds with their Burmese petition. . . . (Huang and Bai [punctuated] [2005], 368)

From these Chinese intelligence communications, it is clear that despite the defeat of their military, the Burmese population at large still resented the British occupation. Widespread resistance to British rule was a definite possibility. The Chinese authorities were thus prompted to consider expanding their sphere of influence in Burma to push the British back as far south as possible. One month later, on 4 Month 6th Guangxu Year 12 (July 5, 1886), Cen Yuying wrote another memorial:


. . . According to the report of the [Tengyue] (today Tengchong, in the southwest part of Yunnan) Zongbing [who was named] Ding Huai (a military officer of the Qing Dynasty: the commanding officer of garrison troops of an area)/Daoyuan [who was named] Wu Qizhen (the administrated officer of the Qing Dynasty, ranking four): on April 23, . . . Mubang tusi (Burmese: Theinni, in the northern part of the Shan States) from outside the border named Zhong Wenyuan who came from Mengmao (Moeng Mao) to beg to see [the leading officials]. [He] claims that [Mubang] was once subordinate to China, [but now] it has fallen into the hands of Burma. [He] rules 49 moeng (müang). Every moeng has 2,000–3,000 households (hu). [They] choose one non-disabled man for each household; thus, they could raise over 10,000 [soldiers]. Now Burma does not have a king [any longer]. [They] decided to be [our] subordinates. If they were granted the chance to be subjects of China, they would serve as guardians of [our] borderline. . . . [I] (Cen Yuying) has confirmed that though the British have occupied the Burmese capital, [they] are resented by the population. It looks like [they] will not be able to pacify the country within a short time. Mubang is a strategic passage in northern Burma. [It] shares a boundary with the Zhefang tusi situated in the territory of Yunnan. [It] was a former Jimi22) aboriginal prefecture in the Ming Dynasty. [Then it] was transformed to be a Pacification Commission. Finally, it was conquered by Burma. In the Qianlong Year 31 (1766), its chieftain Han Songfa led his people to surrender and then integrate into Burma. Now, the Chinese and British have a good relationship. [Thus,] if we heed the request of tusi Zhong Wenyuan, [it will] probably create suspicion. If we reject it, [it is] worrying that [he] may lead his people to surrender to others, which would eventually become a threat to [our] borderline. . . . [I] beg the empress and emperor to instruct [I]. (Huang and Bai [punctuated] [2005], 369–370)

A decree on the conscription of the ministers of the council of state (Jun ji da chen 軍機大臣) was issued on 3 Month 7th Guangxu Year 12 (August 2, 1886):


Cen Yujing issued a memorial (to the emperor) about the Renzuo tusi’s call for rescue by [our] troops. . . . The governor (Cen Yuying) petitioned that the Mubang tusi was asking to be (our) subordinate. . . . The Renzuo [tusi] previously asked for military support; now, Mubang is asking to be [our] subordinate. They are treading a dangerous path out of desperation. [They] sway between rebellion and subordination. . . . Now, [I] have issued a decree to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conclude a new treaty with the British envoys; there is absolutely no reason to raise conflicts just because of one or two tusi. . . . If any Burmese come to appeal for the same issue in the future . . . refer to decree: “The Chinese and British have retained a good relationship for years, [we] are unwilling to spark any frontier disputes.” . . . These tusi should not appeal to [us] again. Pacify [them] with kind words and the Jimi will not cease. All in all . . . it is of course not appropriate to display apparent rejection nor is it to discuss subordination. (QSL, GX 12/7/3, 55, 99a–b)

Earlier, in 1884, Chen Jinzhong (a Siamese consular officer of Chinese ancestry in Singapore) advised the Chinese deputy Zheng Guanying in Singapore on June 14, 1884 (Guangxu Year 10):


If Burma perishes [because of the British], Yunnan will be plunged into turmoil that will be hard to deal with. As a Chinese officer, you should consider [all possibilities] thoroughly and devise appropriate tactics. (Xia 1982, 977)

It was not in Siam’s interest to let Britain continue to expand its colony. Chen even warned Zheng that after seizing Upper Burma, the British would quickly enter Yunnan and inland China. As a Siamese consular officer, Chen was aware of Great Britain’s territorial ambitions toward Burma and southwest Yunnan, which would trigger a boundary crisis. However, the Qing court stood firm on its traditional diplomatic strategy.

To sum up, the Qing court did not pay much attention to the affairs of these distant areas, whose primary purpose was deemed nothing more than guarding the hinterland. The Qing court even passed up on a great chance to expand the border by taking Bhamo and the Shan States. According to Zhu’s study, if the Qing court had taken advantage of protecting some Chinese immigrants in Bhamo in 1884–85, the British would have let it. That was because General Adamson Major had received an order that he should not take Bhamo if it were already occupied by the Chinese (Zhu 2007, 65). Although some Qing officers took a proactive stance, the court remained reluctant.

It was not long until the traditional diplomatic strategy was challenged by the growing presence of Western colonial powers. After its defeat in the Sino-French War (December 1883 to April 1885), the Qing court gradually realized the severity of the southwest frontier issues when China was forced to abandon its tributary relations with all of Vietnam in 1885. Without the tributary areas as buffers, there was no way to prevent the French from entering China via Tonkin in present-day northern Vietnam. That is why the Qing court insisted that Burma should continue to pay tribute. It intended to keep the tributary relationship to save face and maintain the southwest border as before. Neither Cen’s nor Zeng’s proposals could persuade the court to change its mind.

The Disputed Areas

Why did Zeng fail to come to terms with the British Foreign Office before resigning from his duty and going back to China on 19 Month 3rd Guangxu Year 12 (April 20, 1886)? His suggestions never made their way into the Burma Terms proclaimed on July 24, 1886. The first reason was that the Qing court was not concerned about the ruler being Burmese or British as long as Burma paid tribute every 10 years, a stipulation that the British felt uneasy with (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 62, 45). This condition cost the Qing court the best opportunity to negotiate with Britain (Zhu 2007, 51–62). The second reason was that Zeng had mistaken the Nu River (Salween River) for the Lu River (Irrawaddy River). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Qing Dynasty ordered him to correct this mistake before negotiating with Britain again (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 64, 18). At that time, the Qing court’s priority was to deal with the Yunnan-Vietnam frontier issue instead.

Later, when Xue Fucheng became the new Chinese minister in London (1890–94), he resumed the responsibility to negotiate with the British, who already had full control over Burma. He also aimed to understand the situation in Burma during the previous six years. Following his memoirs, we can trace China’s territorial ambitions. Xue was an educated intellectual who knew clearly that the Yunnan-Burma frontier issue would endanger the hinterland if the British kept expanding their influence in southwest China. On 25 Month 1st Guangxu Year 17 (March 5, 1891), he wrote a memorial suggesting that the emperor pursue the demarcation of the Yunnan-Burma frontier in cooperation with the British. Furthermore, he highlighted the benefits China would reap after settling the border issue with Britain (Xue 1894, Vol. 1, 73):


The British claimed [they] could offer [us] the east bank of the Lu River . . . if we could take Nan Zhang (Lan Sang, notably the northern parts of present-day Laos) and the Shan [State] as [our] subordinate or let it be [our] frontier, [then we are in] a good position to pacify the minorities and guard [our] border. . . . I have seen the latest Western map; it seems that Laos had been ceded to Siam. If we merely accept this faux offering from the British, it does not mean we can genuinely control these territories. . . . [We] should investigate whether any polities in Laos remained independent instead of succumbing to Siam. [Only then can we] decide whether to accept [the British offer] or not. (Xue 1894, Vol. 1, 73)


The Shan States that was subordinated to Burma has a territory larger than that of Laos. It is somehow autonomous and does not give in to China’s pacification. (Note: it is thus more Sinicized than Laos.) If we take the Shan States, then the border of Pu’er Prefecture and Shun Ning Prefecture would be reinforced. As for the Bhamo area that Zeng Jize asked for, although the British did not want to release it, they did give their tacit approval for [us to take the] old Bhamo area (Kokang, in the Shan State23)), which leads to Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River). If we do not fight for these areas in the future, or if we fight and fail, five concerns will arise. Under any circumstances, a person loses if he cannot gain. The discussion on border expansion was not done to enlarge the territory of China. I have heard that Burma leveraged its military strength and could not be pacified during the Qianlong Period; it annexed various regions near the border headed by rulers in Yunnan. [We have no idea about] the situation in Tengyue on the outer side of the eight barriers. The border at the southwest corner [of Yunnan] has always been unclear. If we do not seek expansion, we might let them (Britain) invade [us]. This is the first concern. If we do not leave a bit of a buffer, they will certainly construct a railway that leads to the Yunnan border. Whatever happens, our action would be limited. This is the second concern. The upper Chang Jiang River (Yangtze River) originates from the small Jin Sha Jiang (Jinsha River). The source lies in Tibet, and the river runs toward Yunnan, which is close to [our] border. Western maps call it the Yangzi River. If we expand to take the Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River), we can still keep them (Britain) slightly away from our border. If we stand still on our current border, they will notice that the river source is close. [They] might try to [induce] overflow to sailboats into the Chang Jiang River to strive for commercial profits. This is the third concern. The British are good at running commercial ports. If we expand [our] border, then the business will be conducted in Burma. We can set up a customs point and collect tax in Burma to prosper together [with the British]. If we do not expand, then the business will be conducted in Yunnan. If they request to set up a concession, or consulate [in Yunnan], it will be hard for local affairs not to be affected. This is the fourth concern. . . . Once they enter Yunnan, [they will] learn of Yunnan’s rich mineral resources, which might bring out their devious side. This is the fifth concern. . . . The British did not agree to Zeng’s proposal of making Nan Zhang (the northern parts of present-day Laos), the Shan States, and Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River) designated public areas for both buffer zones and making Bhamo a customs station. (QSG, 1977, Vol. 48, 14686-14687 [Vol. 528 Biography 315 Subordinate States 3: Burma, Siam, Nan Zhang (Laos), Su Lu (Saltanah Sulu)])

Xue made it clear that the British offer of Nanzhang (present-day northern Laos) and Shan States (present-day northeast Burma) to the Qing court did not carry much weight, as the areas were controlled by Siam and Burma, not the British. He pointed out that the frontier in the southwest region had always been unclear. If the Qing court did not seek to expand, the territory would be taken, and the situation might get out of control. The Qing court would then be put in an awkward position. In his memorial, Xue strongly suggested that the Qing court actively engages in negotiations with the British. At the same time, investigators were sent to scout the borderline according to Xue’s suggestion. The goal was to persuade local rulers in the area to defend the Qing court and keep the Western colonial powers away from the hinterland. Therefore, Xue suggested making Bhamo a customs point to collect taxes and open up the Irrawaddy River for public use (mainly for the Qing court). According to Zhu’s study and Xue’s journal, it is clear that the Qing court merely wanted to extend its frontier to include the buffer areas. It is also evident that Xue intended to garner more leverage to bargain with the British. He knew that it was impossible to ask the British to follow the agreed arrangements that Zeng had proposed six years earlier as the British had already taken control over Upper Burma. Thus, he wanted to demand more concessions to gain the upper hand in the negotiation (Xue 1985, 585; Zhu 2007, 70–74).

On July 10, 1892, Xue was sent to negotiate with the British Foreign Office on the Yunnan-Burma frontier and a trade agreement. The negotiations did not go smoothly, according to two of Xue’s journal entries of 27 Month 7th Guangxu Year 19 (September 7, 1893). The first one is titled Memorial of the Summary of the Demarcation on the Yunnan-Burma Frontier (Dianmian fenjie dagai qingxing shu: 滇緬分界大概情形疏):


Britain repudiated the previous agreement (with Zeng). Although the British explained [the repudiation] on the basis of the international treaty (the Burma Terms), the true reason is that the situation has changed. . . . Last year the British army patrolled along the border of Yunnan to investigate the border and violated our territory. . . . Zeng Jize once proposed to the British Foreign Office to make Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River) the border, with the territories on the east bank put under the control of Yunnan. But the British refused. . . . I waited for a suitable time to raise our arguments for territorial expansion. . . . [Britain] allegedly had agreed with the Indian governor to make Mengding and southwest Ganlanba, namely Kokang, a Chinese concession, which is located between the Salween River and the Nan Ding River with a total acreage of 750 square miles. Then draw a straight line from the border of Meng Mao, including (the customs point of) Han Long Guan (now in Burma), eastward until the Salween River and Mali Ba (today the capital of Kokang)—the area will be ceded to China, about 800 square miles. Then there are Cheli and Menglian, which is a large area that has always belonged to Yunnan. [We] recently have established a new prefecture, derived from Menglian, for the pacification of the border. The British [however] leveraged the fact that Menglian and Cheli had paid tribute to Burma to ask to make these shared territories. Nevertheless, now they agreed to let us have full sovereignty via a treaty and will not raise any questions on it again. (Xue 1894, Vol. 2, 22)

There are three main points raised in the above text: first, Zeng’s previous proposal was rejected by the British; second, Xue highly recommended to the Qing court to expand the territory; third, Britain recognized the full sovereignty of the Qing court over Cheli and Menglian. Xue supplemented this first memorial with a second titled Memorial of Taking Back of the Full Sovereignty of Cheli and Menglian (Shouhui Cheli, Menglian liang tusi quanquan pian: 收回車裡,孟連兩土司全權片):


In the southeast of Yunnan, in the Jimi areas, the two biggest tusi are Cheli and Menglian. In recent years, a new prefecture named Zhen Bian was established to pacify the northern border of Menglian. There is only this one prefecture. The areas of Cheli and Menglian are equal to four or five sub-prefectures in the hinterland. When the British officials and I debated on Yeren Mountain (Kachin Hills), the British Foreign Office leveraged the fact that Cheli and Menglian had paid tribute to Burma to claim control. They wanted to establish a new prefecture and designate it and the two tusi to be shared territories. I have looked up the Huidian (Code of the Great Qing Dynasty) and Yitong Yutu (Atlas of the Qing Dynasty): Cheli and Menglian have been parts of Yunnan for a long time. The new prefecture has just been established and its officer appointed. If we made these areas shared territories all of a sudden, there was no administrative system to put in place, so we stood firm on our stance. A moment later, the British Foreign Office convinced themselves to let China have full sovereignty over Cheli and Menglian. If [we] pacify and control [them] (Cheli and Menglian) suitably, [they will] guard [our] borderline and prevent spies from Britain, France, and Siam. Moreover, Lin’an and Pu’er, Simao and Yuanjiang Prefectures, could then be stabilized. Unfortunately, as soon as issues with the British have been settled, here come the French. Recently the French have forced Siam to cede the east bank of the Mekong River, and most parts of Cheli are situated there. The French requested several times to demarcate the border with us. Although they claim to have no intention to occupy Yunnan, if they know about the talk by the British, there is no guarantee that they will not follow suit. The British currently have only asked about it with empty words; they have not gained any real benefits. Now, I am negotiating the treaty with the British, claiming Cheli and Menglian belong solely to China and have nothing to do with the British. Once the treaty is signed, [I] will go as far as asking the British to be our witness to prove [that Cheli and Menglian are part of China]. The French always fear the powerful and prey on the weak. When they hear about how we spared no effort in fighting against the Russians for Pamir and the British for Yeren Mountain (Kachin Hills), it is hoped that they will proceed with the negotiation of demarcation peacefully with no arguments. Then the issue can be easily resolved without much drama. Here is my memorial, your Majesty. (Xue 1975, 22–23)

As Warry suggested in his report, the idea of ceding Chiang Rung (Cheli) might have been firmly rejected by the Qing court. Thus, he asked the British government to handle the issue with great caution. Moreover, Chiang Rung also could be a buffer area since the French had already taken Tonkin.24) That is why when Xue demanded full sovereignty over Cheli and Menglian, the British did not object. However, the British were afraid that the French would annex Chiang Rung and Moeng Laem. The condition was then written into the clause: the Qing court was not allowed to cede Chiang Rung and Moeng Laem to a third country. This clause caused a series of problems, which will be discussed later.

Taking back Menglian and Cheli was a remarkable achievement of Xue’s diplomatic career. He was praised by the Qing court. His efforts were, however, criticized by a number of scholars in the twentieth century as many believed Menglian and Cheli had been an inherent territory of China. However, now, many agree with Xue’s point of view. Although Cheli and Menglian had paid tribute to the Qing court for a long time, the areas were far from the hinterland and hard to defend and control. Xue tried his best to bargain with the British and persuaded them to recognize China’s full sovereignty over Cheli and Menglian. With the eastern borderline among China, Burma, and Laos clarified, the area became more organized, and fewer disputes occurred. Furthermore, Britain and France then had a “buffer.” A balance of powers was achieved, with Xue as the pivotal figure.

In a nutshell, Zeng proposed the following: (1) expanding the Chinese border to include the Nan Zhang (Lan Sang)25) and the Shan States, which were located outside Pu’er Prefecture; (2) designating Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River) as a public area available to both sides for trade; and (3) establishing a Chinese customs point near Bamo (Bhamo) to collect taxes.

While his three suggestions sounded reasonable, Zeng’s downfall came about because he mistook the Irrawaddy River for the Nu River when it was the Salween River. The Qing Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Zong li ya men 總理衙門) lost its faith in Zeng as he did not seem to know enough about Yunnan. He was ordered to be extra careful before reaching a final decision with the British Foreign Office. Today, only a few records on this matter can be found in the British envoy’s office. The envoy remarked that the three suggestions were not acceptable and thus could not be part of the Burma Terms. The Qing court missed the opportunity to make the best deal.

Zeng’s successor Xue knew it was not possible to continue pursuing Zeng’s suggestions. He then tried his best to come up with the following demands: (1) make Irrawaddy River (Salween River) the border, with Yunnan taking the areas east of the river; (2) cede Kegan (Kokang), an area of about 800 square miles in the territory of Menggen (Moeng Khuen, i.e., Chiang Tung), to China; (3) let part of Yeren Shan (Kachin Hills) be included in the western border of Yunnan;26) (4) recognize Chinese sovereignty over Cheli (Sipsòng Panna) and Menglian (Moeng Laem); (5) send Burmese officers to pay tribute to China regularly, and (6) let China establish a customs point in Bhamo to collect taxes. In exchange, the Qing court would give up Chiang Tung and Mupang (Map 3).27)



Map 3 Map of the Yunnan-Burma-Siam Border

Source: National Palace Museum of Taipei, Treaties and Maps That Defined the Qing’s Southwest Bound­aries, Exhibition Room North Yard Gallery 104.


British Reaction

According to the Warry Report

With the Qing court’s stance made clear, we now compare it with Britain’s stance, which can be traced through the reports of Scott and Warry, who also drew Maps 4 and 5.



Map 4 Map Accompanying Warry’s Letter No. 9 of June 15, 1891

Source: From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 9, dated Bhamo, the 15th June 1891.



Map 5 Map Accompanying Warry’s Letter No. 9 of June 15, 1891

Source: From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 9, dated Bhamo, the 15th June 1891.


We begin with an extract from Warry’s report:

First, on the Trans-Salween section (Map 6) of the Bhamo-Chinese frontier of the 13 Trans-Salween Shan States, three only, namely, Mainglingyi, Kiangtung, and Kianghung have a frontier facing that of Yunnan. Before proceeding to trace the boundary line it will be useful to give a short account of the relations of these three States to China.



Map 6 The Trans-Salween States

Source: Mitton (1936, 138).


(1) Mainglingyi (Menglian in Mandarin and Moeng Laem in Tai): Mainglingyi has been influencing by China since nineteenth century. . . . This small Shan district, usually called Myenlyin, which lies a march or two to south-east of Kengma (Gengma). But be this as it may, it is clear that the Chinese have exercised no interference whatever the affairs of Mainglingyi for at least a century. On the other hand, Mainglingyi has in recent times often been under the authority of Kiangtung when Kiangtung paid tribute to Burma; the present Sawbwa (Tai: Chaofa, literally “Lord of Heaven”) of Mainglingyi was appointed by King Mindon, and this State may be properly classed among Burmese dependencies.

(2) Kiangtung (Jingdong in Mandarin, Chiang Tung in Tai): This State was undoubtedly tributary to Burma. Its Chiefs were appointed by Burma, and in troublous times the Burmese Kings held a military come at its capital.

(3) Kianghung (Jinghong in Mandarin, Chiang Rung in Tai): It is in respect of Kianghung that questions are most likely to arise when the question of delimitation is under discussion. Historically, . . . troops from Burma or Kiangtung have occasionally invaded western Kianghung and compelled a temporary recognition of Burmese suzerainty; and that on one occasion at least (1878) a Sawbwa of Kianghung was nominated by Burma . . ., from 1730 onwards for many years Kianghung was under the direct administration of the Chinese Prefect at Pu-erh. In more recent times Kianghung has been practically independent. . . . Its Sawbwas hold a high-sounding Chinese title the institution of which dates from the year 1387 A.D.; they refer important questions to the Ssu-mao (Simao) official from arbitration; and according to Mr. Bourne, who visited Ssu-mao in the winter of 1885, they still suffer the Chinese Sub-prefect at that place to exercise a concurrent jurisdiction over the eastern portions of their State. (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888)

According to both Chinese records and Warry’s report, it is certain that Moeng Laem, Chiang Tung, and Chiang Rung paid tribute to Burma. Chiang Tung was even occupied by the Burmese several times. Warry also mentioned that Chiang Rung benefited from the Chinese allegiance through support against Burmese or Siamese invasion. As Foon Ming Liew-Herres et al. (2012, 49) points out, Moeng Laem and Chiang Rung were influenced by China and Burma for centuries: the “Chinese-Burmese condominiums were established since the sixteenth century and prevailed until the late nineteenth century.” That is expressed in the Tai metaphor ฮ่อเป็นพ่อ เมียงเป็นแม่ (Hò pen pò man pen mae: The Chinese [Hò] are [our] father, the Burmese [man] are [our] mother). Imperial China was uneasy about allowing its vassal states to pay tribute to Burma. However, when the Burmese influence increased while the influence of the Qing court was still limited in this area, the imperial Chinese court had to make a compromise with Burma and the frontier polities (Liew-Herres et al. 2012, 49–56). This historical background must be taken into consideration when it comes to demarcation issues.

Warry’s colleague Lieutenant H. Daly further reveals:

In both Meung Lem and Kaing Hung the expression “China is our father and Burma our mother” is a stock diplomatic phrase, and it appears certain that for a considerable period prior to King Mindon’s death no Chief of either State was regarded as duly and finally installed until he had been confirmed in his position by both Burma and China.

So far as I am aware there are no reasons for advocating the inclusion within our limits of any of the Border States which owe undivided allegiance to China. (Warry’s report: From Lieutenant H. Daly, Superintendent, Northern Shan States, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 6F., dated Bombay, the 12th June 1891)

Speaking about the Chinese influence in this region, Warry mentions that the rubber trade in the north of Kamaing28) was run mainly by Chinese or Burmese agents of Chinese (From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, No. 15, dated Shwegu, the 18th May 1890). He was worried that was not only the rubber trade business influenced by the Chinese, but also considerable areas in the Shan States acknowledged the suzerainty of China:

These districts owning allegiance were termed under the Chinese Ming dynasty the San Fu (三府) or Three Prefectures, and under the present Chinese dynasty. (From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Mandalay, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, No. 11, dated the 15th July 1888) (Fig. 1 and Map 7)



Fig. 1 世襲木邦宣慰司鈴記 [The hereditary wood seal of Mubang Pacification Commission. Some seals issued by the present Chinese dynasty are still hidden away in Upper Burma.]




Map 7  Nineteenth-Century Map, Including the Chinese Shan States

Source: “The Shan States,” Wikiwand.


However, he was also aware of the dwindling Chinese influence after the Qing-Burma wars at the end of the eighteenth century. In the end, the Mubang districts were absorbed into the Burmese kingdom, and the Chinese influence dwindled.

In considerable detail, Warry describes how China tried to pacify these recalcitrant Shan States:

For the last eight or nine years, however, the Chinese have devoted much more attention to their frontier dependencies, and all the Sawbwas (Chaofa, “Lord of Heaven”) now complain that they cannot raise enough money to meet the demands made upon them. Nowadays a Chinese official expects handsome presents from all Sawbwas in his charge when he takes up his appointment, when he visits the State when any cases connected with it come before him. The exactions of military officials are even more oppressive and capricious. For instance, the Kangai Sawbwa, who is the proud possess[or] of a long black beard kept carefully wrapped up in a silk bag, told me last year that this ornament had cost him tales 2000. He went on to explain that this was the sum which General Ting had fined him for having presumed to wear a beard when paying an official visit, this being held to be a disrespectful action in a subordinate. No wonder that the old Sawbwa desired incorporation with Yunnan, when such tyranny would no longer be possible, or that, failing this, he longed for the old times, when the States were free from Chinese inference. Not very long ago Mengmao and Chefang were at war for several years; many lives were lost, much property was destroyed, and general disorganization prevailed. “Why did you not step in and stop the fighting?” I asked the Deputy P’eng when he was travelling with me last year. He hesitated a moment, and then said “Well, to speak the truth, our officials never heard a word about it.”

Warry first reminded the Chinese would actively resist the British government that attempts to claim any part of Chiang Rung on the farther bank of the Mekong. He highlighted that this extension of territory would bring the British into direct conjunction with the frontier in Tongquin (Tonkin), the borders of which were thought to match with those of eastern Kianghung (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888). Nevertheless, he suggested ceding Moeng Laem as it paid tribute to Burma as Chiang Rung did. Second, he said Kiangtung (Chiang Tung) was undoubtedly tributary to Burma, and Burmese appointed its chiefs. Burmese military forces guarded its capital on many occasions.

Historically, Chiang Rung paid tribute to both Burma and China. Warry addressed the issue of Chiang Rung, which was most likely to arise during delimitation. In more recent times Chiang Rung was practically independent, despite having a strong leaning toward China (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888). Liew-Herres et al. (2012, 55) point out those Tai polities “had the advantage of playing the ‘father’ (China) and the ‘mother’ (Burma) against each other and of gaining a maximum of autonomy.” In some cases, the “father” and “mother” could come to an agreement. In 1838 both sides reached an agreement to force these Tai polities—Chiang Rung, Chiang Tung, and Moeng Laem—to accept a peace convention (Liew-Herres et al. 2012). In a traditional patriarchal family, the father is deemed superior to the mother. Therefore, as the “father,” the Chinese spoke louder than the Burmese.

Reports from Other British Missions

Besides Warry’s report, we can trace the British frontier strategy through a number of missions sent during the 1860s to 1890s to investigate the border between Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan. The other British missions were deployed to open up a practical and direct commercial route. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the British Chamber of Commerce had urged the British government to investigate Upper Burma and western Yunnan as soon as possible. Memorials No. 32 and 33 stated the following:

No. 32 . . . the third from the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, dated 30 August 1866, and addressed to the . . . Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the other Lords of the Treasury; thus concluded:—The British government to “take all necessary measures for a survey of the country between Rangoon and Kiang-Hung (Chiang Rung, namely Sipsong Panna), with a view to the opening of a practical and direct commercial route to Western China.”

No. 33 . . . the second from the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, dated 30 November 1866, and addressed to the Earl of Derby, K.G., First Lord of the Treasury; thus concluded:—That your Lordship’s will please forthwith to authorise and direct a proper official survey, by a competent civil engineer of this country, of the best route for railway communication from Rangoon, via Kiang-Tung and Kiang-Hung, to the south-western provinces of China. (Tracts Vol. 606, Direct Commerce with the Shan States and West of China, by Railway from Rangoon to Kiang-Hung, on the Upper Kamboja River, on the South-west Frontier of China. Memorial No. 48 Thereon. From the Wakefield Chamber of Commerce. To the Lords of her majesty’s treasury, 15th of November 1868, London: 1869 [Parliamentary Paper, “Rangoon & Western China,” 28, A. Sess. 1866, Pa. 12 and 14])

After emerging victorious in the Sino-French War, France conquered the north and central Vietnam, leaving the British wondering whether the French would get ahead in exploiting the benefits from the commercial competition in mainland Southeast Asia and China. The reporter “R.G.” pressed the British government not to wait, otherwise “the Frenchman would make a way to China for us” (Tracts Vol. 606. Overland Communication with western China. A brief statement of how the matter stands at present by R.G. with a map. Liverpool: Webb, Hunt & Ridings, 9, Castle Street. Overland communication with China. The Chambers of Liverpool and Manchester).

Later, on July 23, 1882, Cameron was stopped at Seumao (Simao, today Pu’er Prefecture) because the local authorities refused to issue him a permit to pass through Kiang Hung.29) Meanwhile, the other mission, led by Colquhoun and Wahad, yielded fruitful results. The men departed from Canton (now Guangdong) on February 5, 1882, and went through Pe-se (today Baise, Guangxi Province) to South Yunnan through Kwang-nan (Guangnan), Linan (Lin’an), and Puerh (Ning’er County today) to Sao-mao (Simao). However, they had to depart from Simao to Dali, because Chiang Rung was in an unstable situation (Tracts Vol. 606, Overland China Mail, March 7, 1882; Times of India, August 8, 1882). Following are excerpts from Colquhoun’s record:

. . . [We] traversed the whole of South Yun-nan by . . . Puerh to Ssu-mao, the last south-western military and administrative centre of the Chinese Government in Yun-nan. . . . From Ssu-mao it was intended to pass through the Laos countries, either east or west of the Mekong to Zimme or Xieng-mai (the northernmost Siamese Laos state), and thence to South-Eastern Burmah. . . . The neighbouring state of Xieng-hong was in a disturbed condition, and civil war reigned there owing to a question of succession. . . . Mr. Colquhoun did not consider it prudent to enter the Xieng-hong territory. . . . I-bang is a Laos district tributary to China, situated seven stages south-east of Ssu-mao, and supplies most of the so-called Puerh tea; hence it is a Laos and not a China tea.

From the above reports, it seems evident that before the third Anglo-Burmese War British missions were sent with a primary interest in opening a practical commercial route. The purpose of the following missions then switched to surveying the borderline in order to get more benefits from the frontier negotiation. Warry’s and Scott’s missions then visited the northern Shan States and the Burma-Yunnan boundary successively from 1889 to 1904.30)

Tracts Vol. 727 (Diary of Events of Military Interest in Burma for January 1894 Bhamo and the North) recorded the following: “Captain Davies was after all permitted to accompany Mr Warry to Manwaing. On January 8th (1894) Mr Warry, accompanied by Captain Davies and with a small escort of a corporal and four men of the Yorkshire Regiment, left Namkham with the Chinese officials.” We can see that Warry accompanied Scott on his mission after he had finished his mission in 1889. Together they made a record of the Chinese military forts and the attitude of Chinese officers toward foreigners. It is reported that the viceroy of Yunnan (Songfan 崧蕃 [1895–1900]) was very amicable and favourably inclined toward the British. Warry and Scott also investigated the military posts in the Chinese territory. This was a clever manoeuvre on the part of the British government to get as much useful information as possible before signing the treaty on March 1, 1894. Unlike imperial China, Britain was savvy at frontier negotiations, with plenty of experience under its belt. Thus, China found itself in a passive position in the borderline negotiation during the 1890s.

The Reaction of Moeng Laem and Chiang Tung during the Late 1890s

The border negotiations between Britain and China should have left some traces in the collective memory of the Tai ethnic groups living on both sides of the border between British Burma and the Chinese province of Yunnan. One might, in particular, expect some reflections on these negotiations in the indigenous historiography of Moeng Laem and Chiang Tung, the two Tai polities most severely affected by the border agreement. The Chiang Khaeng Chronicle, composed in 1905, gives much prominence to the Anglo-French border treaty of 1896, which led to the division of the small Tai Lue principality of Chiang Khaeng (with its capital at present-day Müang Sing) along the course of the Mekong River. The chronicle describes in detail the strategies employed by the local elites to prevent this border treaty as well as the local reactions to the final disintegration of the Chiang Khaeng polity (Grabowsky and Renoo 2008, 43–46).

Looking at the various extant versions of the Moeng Laem Chronicle, transmitted on mulberry paper manuscripts by Pò Saeng Sam, a prolific scribe from Moeng Laem with connections to the former ruler’s court, we found no mention of the Anglo-Chinese border negotiations of the 1890s. For the second half of the nineteenth century, the Moeng Laem Chronicle deals with the conflicts between the lowland Tai and the intrusions of the Lahu (Musoe) hill tribe since the 1840s, which caused considerable political and social unrest in this small Tai polity. In the 1880s Moeng Laem was threatened by military intervention from Chiang Tung (soek khoen), which aimed at enforcing the extradition of a prince from Chiang Rung to Chiang Tung (in 1882), and by the fighting between Moeng Laem’s ally Chiang Rung with its rebellious district (panna) of Moeng Cae (in 1888). Nowhere is Britain mentioned as a political player affecting the security of the local Tai polity in Moeng Laem.

The historiography of Chiang Tung, however, provides a different picture. The Jengtung (Chiang Tung) State Chronicle (CTSC), translated and edited by Sāimöng Mangrāi (1981), pays a great deal of attention to the British victory over Burma in 1885. The defeat of Burma is described with a certain amount of satisfaction as it brought Chiang Tung some relief from Burmese military pressure, which had increased over the previous year. The British conquest of Upper Burma created a temporary power vacuum in the Shan areas, which enabled Chiang Tung to establish itself as a de facto independent polity during 1885–90 and expand its political influence deep into areas on the west bank of the Salween River. This situation abruptly ended in 1890, when “the Gāla Ingalik entered the state,” as the CTSC states in a very brief entry for the year CS 1252 (AD 1890/91). Though the British now considered Chiang Tung a protectorate, the CTSC gives the impression of Chiang Tung as an autonomous though small kingdom, as is reflected by the ostentatious Sanskrit-derived title of Prince Kònkaeo, who ascended to the throne of the Tai Khuen polity in 1896. In early 1899 the boundary between China and the British protectorate of Chiang Tung was settled. The chronicle describes these negotiations in a way that gives the Chiang Tung ruler and his officials’ disproportionate prominence as part of the British delegation:

In the year 1260, Month Three (Dec. 1898/Jan. 1899) the prince, accompanying the commissioner [of Burma], went out to demarcate the boundary with China. On the Chinese side there were Taudhāy, as the head, and Denpīn. [The boundary line] began from the Namhlak, Hlabhuk, along the boundary of Möngphaen, Möngyāng, to Dā-āng, down to Latīp, going out to Bānnôy, Kāngbengnāng, Moengva, Jengkhāng, Bānjhô, Bānfāy, Mönghlōy, along the Namṅa until the Mekong was reached. On the British side there were the commissioner and the prince heading the officials; on the Chinese side there were Taudhāy and the Prince of Svaenhvīfā heading the officials, and they went to have a conference at Mönglōng [a substate of Jengtung]. When that had been done the prince returned to Jengtung City during Month Eight of the year 1261 (May/June 1899). (Sāimöng Mangrāi 1981, 277)

It is evident here that the Tai Khuen elites of Chiang Tung did not consider the Anglo-Chinese boundary demarcation of 1899 to be detrimental to their interests. The fact that local rulers and their high-ranking officials were allowed to become part of the British delegation refurbished the rulers’ image as local actors in the borderlands of upper mainland Southeast Asia.

The Final Treaty

There were no objections from either China or Britain against Mupang (Theinni), Moeng Khuen (Chiang Tung), and Manmo (Bhamo) being absorbed into British Burma. The controversial parts in the frontier negotiation remained the territories of Yeren Mountain (Kachin Hills, in Mengyang, namely Kachin State), Menglian, Cheli, and Kokang, and access to the upper Irrawaddy River.

On 20 Month 12th Guangxu Year 19 (January 26, 1894), Xue presented the final proposal (Map 8): China would cede territories east of the Irrawaddy River in exchange for expansion on the original frontier of an extra 20 miles. The northern section of the frontier would be temporarily demarcated, except Cheli and Menglian would become a definite part of Chinese soil. A straight line would be drawn from Moeng Mao (Namkam) to Maliba (Kokang), with the east and north sides belonging to China (Xue 1975, 5).



Map 8  This Atlas was the Final Demarcation Report in Xue Fucheng’s Memorial in 1894.

Source: Xue (1975, 5).


Instead of 20 miles, Britain agreed to an expansion of only 5 miles. Additionally, a clause forbidding Menglian and Cheli from being ceded to a third party was demanded by France. The Resumption Treaty of China-Britain on Yunnan-Burma’s Border and Trade in Services of the Clauses (中英續議滇緬界務商務條款) was finally signed on 24 Month 1st Guangxu Year 20 (March 1, 1894) in London. There were 20 clauses in this treaty. As a Chinese record notes:


[Guangxu] In the Year 20 (1894), in the first month of the lunar year, [we are] formulating a new Dian-Mian (Yunnan and Burma) treaty. This new treaty has a total of 19 [sic] stipulations. [The new border] is designated to reach Jian Gao Mountain (Teng Chong) in the north. In the southwest, the border runs from Jianghong (Chiang Rung, south of Sipsong Panna) to Mei Jiang (Mekong River). It allows Chinese ships to sail in the Irrawaddy River at any time, but the issue of establishing a customs station in Bhamo is deleted. Thus, the borderline issue between Yunnan and British Burma is roughly resolved. (QSG 1977, Vol. 48, 14689 [Vol. 528 Biography 315 Subordinate States 3: Burma, Siam, Nan Zhang (Laos), Su Lu (Saltanah Sulu)])

The treaty defined the middle and southern frontiers of Yunnan-Burma, but the north was defined as an undetermined frontier. The territories of Sipsong Panna, Menglian, and Mengding were demarcated. Thus, the first stage of the Yunnan-Burma frontier issues was concluded.

Xue did an excellent job for China’s interests. This treaty not only kept Cheli and Menglian within China but also slightly expanded the southwest territory. Nonetheless, Zhang (1937), Liu (1946), and Yu Dingbang (2000) point out that Xue failed to negotiate over the loss of many territories, such as Bhamo, Mupang, and Chiang Tung. In contrast, Zhu (2004) holds that Xue tried his best to hold onto the southwest territories by taking back Cheli and Menglian, keeping Kokang (old Bhamo), and expanding the southwest territory of Yunnan. For the British, it was a successful treaty as it gave them what they wanted. The English version of the “1894 Convention between Britain and China” illustrated the frontier (Map 9), which perfectly corresponded with the Chinese version:



Map 9  Map Illustrating the Convention of 1st March 1894.

Source: Treaty Series, No. 19, 1894.


. . . leaving to China the State of Kokang . . . and Meng Ting which belongs to China. . . . It will still continue to follow the frontier between those two districts, which is locally well known . . . and will then follow the line of water-parting between the tributaries of the Salween and the Mekong Rivers . . . leaving to China the Tsawbwaships (lordships) of Keng Ma, Mengtung, and Mengko . . . leaving Munglem to China, and Manglün to Britain. It will then follow the boundary between Munglem and Kiang Hong, which is locally well known; It will then follow the boundary between Kiang Tong and Kiang Hung. . . . His Majesty the Emperor of China shall not, without previously coming to an agreement with Her Britannic Majesty, cede either Munglem or Kiang Hung, or any portion thereof, to any other nation. (Treaty Series, No. 19, 1894, 4–7)

Map 2 shows that of sections A, B, C, D, and E, only sections B and E were settled, with a clause in section E determining that Cheli and Menglian could not be ceded to a third country. Section C (Moeng Mao) became a perpetual lease area, and sections A and D were un-demarcated areas.

Evaluation of the Clause

The authors believe that Zhu (2004) made an objective assessment. Even if China had obtained more territory in this treaty, it would not have been able to guard it as the country was too weak at that time. China lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1894–95, marking the failure of the Westernization Movement (Yang wu yun dong 洋務運動). China was deemed as an old, weak, and frangible nation that any powerful country could get a piece of. Moreover, Mupang, Bhamo, and Chiang Tung had already been subordinated to Burma for over a century, with little Chinese influence left in these areas. It was therefore not practical to ask for the return of these areas.

Its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War compelled China to cede Moeng Vu (U) and U De (U-Tai) to France in 1897 (Map 10). That was because earlier, on April 17, 1895, after the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed between China and Japan, France managed to force Japan to return the province of Liaoning (northeast China) to China and then demanded that one of the 12 panna, Moeng Vu (U) and U De (U-Tai) in northern Phongsaly in Laos today, be ceded to France as a reward.



Map 10  Annotated from Tan et al. (1982, Vols. 6, 7, 8)


France’s demand, however, forced China to violate the treaty it had signed with Britain. In order to achieve a beneficial supplemental agreement with China for additional trade benefits, as well as curbing French colonial ambitions in mainland Southeast Asia and the Chinese hinterland, a new mission led by Scott was sent again to Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan. In 1895–96, Scott’s mission submitted another confidential report in which he argued:

We should be only a few miles distant from Puerh and Sumao, two of the most important towns in the south-west corner of Yunnan, and, should the trade of Yunnan fall short of expectations, we should be in a better position and have a better chance of creating a trade, being on the Mekong, than if we limit ourselves to the Kong Ming Shan range. . . . There remains the western part of the province, and whether a great trade will eventually be created there or not, we are running a commercial race with France, the prize being the possession of that trade. If the retention of Mong Lem and Kèng Hung be a commercial advantage to us in the race, then let us keep these provinces. . . . France regards Yunnan as the “natural Hinterland” to her Tonkin possessions, and she will sooner or later make a bid for a further advance northwards. Should this ever come to pass and Mong Lem (Meng Lian), Keng Hung (Jing Hong), and Chen Pien (Zhen Bian) remain Chinese territory, there will be a tongue of China between us and the French which, in the event of an alliance between the two powers ever becoming au fait accompli, would bring their forces very close to the Salween. . . . On the Mekong we should be far more favourably situated, for we should then be on the direct flank of the French in the event of any further extension on their part taking place towards the north. (Property of the Government of India. Issued by the Intelligence Branch, Q.M.G.’s Department. This report is transmitted for the personal information of the Chief Secretary Chief Commissioner Burma by direction of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief in India and is to be considered Confidential. Supplement to Report of the intelligence officer on Tour with the Superintendent, Northern Shan States, 1895–96, 3)

Scott strongly recommended that the British government extend the frontier to include Pu’er (Ninger County, administered by Pu’er Prefecture today) and Sumao (today’s Pu’er Prefecture), which meant annexing Mong Lem (Moeng Laem) and Keng Hung (Jinghong/Chiang Rung), if commercial benefit could be generated. On the other hand, he was worried about sharing a direct border with France. Therefore, this confidential report suggested that the British government carefully consider whether it was worth it to expand its territory toward Pu’er.

The British were also cautious about triggering military conflicts because they believed the Yunnanese probably possess higher fighting qualities than the Chinese who inhabit the sea-board and dwell in the valleys of the great waterways. They are well armed and, if properly led, it is not improbable that they would fight well. (Property of the Government of India. Issued by the Intelligence Branch, Q.M.G.’s Department. This report is transmitted for the personal information of the Chief Secretary Chief Commissioner Burma by direction of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief in India and is to be considered Confidential. Supplement to Report of the intelligence officer on Tour with the Superintendent, Northern Shan States, 1895–96, 3)

The British government thus hesitated to claim Menglian and Cheli.

Zhu (2007, 99) stresses that the British government insisted on compensation for the breach of the treaty for two reasons: first, Britain felt offended; second, it was afraid that France would take advantage of the commercial and strategic competition in the Upper Mekong Basin and enter the Chinese hinterland via Yunnan. According to the collection of original documents Siam, France, and China. British Documents on Foreign Affairs (Part I, Series E, Vol. 23, 159), Zhu also concludes that Moeng U and U Tai did not mean much to the British (Zhu 2007, 101). She reveals that the British could have asked for less territory in the Yeren Mountain area if they could have opened a commercial port in Xi Jiang (西江), from Yunnan to Guizhou/Guangxi and then Guangdong.

Therefore, when the Qing court refused to cede Cheli and Menglian to the British, the latter did not insist on it. As the Qing Ministry of Foreign Affairs memorialized to the emperor on 15 Month 11th Guangxu Year 21 (December 30, 1895):


[I] have looked into opening a commercial port in Xi Jiang. Although there will be a loss in the lijin (a local business tax that was utilized during the late Qing Dynasty), the customs taxes could offset [the loss]. Yeren Mountain is the barrier of Yunnan. Moreover, the British Foreign Department claimed not only Yeren Mountain but also the southwest [Yunnan], and sought to extend [the border] to Cheli. [Yunnan would] thus lose the [barrier] terrain. The lesser of the two evils should be chosen. Currently, [I] am afraid [if we] delay the decision, things would be unpredictable. It would be even more difficult to deal with. [We] have discussed together secretly, and plan to approve the opening of the commercial port in Xi Jiang, and the frontier of Yeren Mountain will be negotiated [with Britain] with strength. (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 119, 5)

Finally, the Renewed Burmese Treaty between China and Britain (中英續議緬甸條約) was signed on February 4, 1897. China was willing to give up Kegan (Kokang) and the north of Danni (Theinni, part of Mupang), and the British were allowed to set up a new commercial port in Xi Jiang. This was the last official negotiation between China and Britain, bringing an end to the border dispute.

The two powers had tested each other’s bottom lines to maximize their benefit for the past 10 years. Both sought ways to garner trade benefits amid the demarcation of the Yunnan-Burma boundary. It is hard to say which side won the bargain. Britain had to abandon its territorial claims on Cheli and Menglian, while China also had to abandon some of its historical territories.31)

Besides, China was forced to face an increasingly serious boundary crisis. The Qing court was prompted to retire its traditional diplomatic strategy and embrace being part of the modern world, in which China no longer stood in the centre. It was a hard pill to swallow. That was why many scholars in the early or middle of the twentieth century regarded Xue as an incompetent traitor who sold out on many of China’s historical territories.


William Warry was a British intelligence officer who led a mission to investigate Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan during the years 1889–91. The main purpose of the mission was to obtain knowledge about the situation in these areas, such as ethnic groups, topography, and border issues; and then offer useful insights to the British government on matters such as handling the rubber trade and peacefully expanding business with India, Burma, and China, and ways to negotiate with the Qing court to maximize benefit in the frontier negotiation. Warry also promoted a railway extension from Burma to Yunnan. There is not enough information to gauge to what extent the British government adopted his suggestions, but the government in London did conclude a treaty with the Qing court a few years after the mission. The treaty was to define the border between southwest Yunnan and Burma. On March 1, 1894, both sides signed a treaty with 20 clauses, including those recognizing China’s sole sovereignty over Moeng Laem and Chiang Rung, as part of Cheli, as Warry had suggested.

In the final days of the Qing Dynasty, from the late nineteenth century—when the tributary system had collapsed—the Qing court had to face a serious frontier crisis. This crisis was fueled by the rise of Western colonial powers internationally and the rise of Chinese nationalism domestically. Imperial China had to adjust itself to the rapidly changing world dominated by the West.

Thongchai (1994) suggests that boundary issues were a concern mainly of the British, while the Siamese did not find the existing boundary to be an issue and thus did not feel the need to do anything about it. In this case, Western colonial powers invaded the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, causing several frontier problems. The traditional tributary system, for which some Western scholars coined the concept of Mandala in Southeast Asian polities, was challenged by the new international rules, which were determined by Western colonial powers. China could not avoid being part of the world. After that, most Asian countries had to accept the modern rules formulated by the Western world. By giving up distant, multiethnic areas at the periphery of the empire and at the same time keeping their core areas intact, these Asian countries—such as Siam—were able to survive. As a result of this process, the geo-body of a modern nation-state emerged. States such as China and Siam knew clearly that the multiethnic areas along their borders were difficult to administer and integrate into mainstream society. Sacrificing these less important places and strengthening sovereignty over the Chinese and Thai core areas proved to be a wise strategy for the weaker Asian countries during the colonial period.

The only difference between China and Siam in this regard was that China held onto the idea that it was the centre of the world until the early twentieth century. China was afraid of losing face when it had to negotiate the Yunnan-Burma frontier with Great Britain. That was why it insisted on maintaining its traditional tributary system at the expense of giving up many practical benefits. However, Siamese policy was more flexible and pragmatic. As Rama IV, King Mongkut argued, the most important goal was to save and protect the Siamese Empire and to prevent it from being colonized. His successor, Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn, continued his father’s policy. He ensured that Siam did not get involved in the colonial system of Western imperialist powers. Unfortunately, China did not have a wise ruler of comparative standing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The boundary is part of the concept of a nation-state and helps the latter to distinguish itself from other authorities. For local people who lived along the newly drawn borderlines, in many cases, the boundary existed only on a map, not in their minds. Based on geographical proximity, people in the border areas always retained intimate economic or emotional relationships across national borders, especially when they came from the same ethnic group and shared the same language, culture, and even identity.

One such border area was Yuesong (岳宋鄉) in Ximeng County, which was inhabited by members of the Wa (of Mon-Khmer stock) and Tai ethnic groups. The county was located in northwest Menglian on the right bank of the Salween River. The territory of Ximeng bordered the Burmese Wa State, which is marked as section D on Map 2, to the south of the un-demarcated line. On October 1, 1960, the Frontier Convention between China and Burma (中國人民共和國和緬甸聯邦邊界條約) was signed. Through this agreement, the frontier issue between China and Burma, which had lasted for 70 years, was finally resolved. The territory of Ava Mountain was split into two parts: one went to China and the other to Burma.32) Thus, the Wa people became another one of the main transborder ethnic groups. Their national awareness is an interesting case study, which has attracted scholars since the 1960s (Guo 2012, 20–28). Wa people who live on both sides of the border still retain close relationships with one another. In 2008, one of the authors of this paper went to do fieldwork in Yuesong. She interviewed several Wa people from Burma who admitted that they frequently crossed the border to visit their relatives. The borderline marks administrative boundaries but does not serve as a partition wall for groups of the same ethnicity. The Wa people represent a common social phenomenon in southwest Yunnan and probably also mainland Southeast Asia. Yunnan is one of the most complicated areas in China. That was one of the reasons why Warry had to investigate Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan personally.

Between the Burmese territory and inland China, along the upper Mekong River and the Irrawaddy River, multiethnic groups have lived independently for hundreds of years. However, the rise of British colonial ambitions and China’s growing awareness of frontiers changed the destiny for these multiethnic, distant areas.

The borderlines were formed after fierce negotiations between China and Britain. This demarcation defined most of the areas caught in the border dispute between Yunnan and British Burma. For Britain, the demarcation of borderlines was a successful expansion into the Indochinese Peninsula; for China, it was a big challenge to its century-old diplomatic strategy in dealing with “barbarian polities” at its southern periphery; for local polities, it was a life-changing event that was decided for them without much of their involvement. The truth is that preferential diplomacy would never be offered to a weak state.

Accepted: July 4, 2019


Primary Sources:
1. Chinese
Chen Xiafei 陳霞飛, ed. 1995. Zhongguo haiguan midang: Hede, Jin Denggan handian huibian 1874–1907, juan ba 中國海關密檔:赫德,金登幹函電彙編 1874–1907, Volume 8 [Confidential archives of Chinese customs: Compilation of Letters and Telegrams from Sir Robert Hart and James Duncan Campbell 1874–1907, Vol. 8]. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

―, ed. 1991. Zhongguo haiguan midang: Hede, Jin Denggan handian huibian, juan si 1874–1907 中國海關密檔:赫德,金登幹函電彙編 1874–1907, Volume 4 [Confidential archives of Chinese customs: Compilation of Letters and Telegrams from Sir Robert Hart and James Duncan Campbell 1874–1907, Vol. 4]. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Dao Yongming 刀永明. 1989. Zhongguo Daizu shiliao jiyao 中國傣族史料輯要 [The historical data summary of Chinese Tai]. Kunming: Yunnan Minzuchubanshe.

Fang Guoyu 方國瑜. 1987. Zhongguo xinan lishi dili kaoshi 中國西南歷史地理考釋 [Historical geography textual research of southwest China]. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Guangxu. 1885. Zeng Jize handian huibian 曾紀澤函電彙編 [Collections of Zeng Jize’s telegrams], Chinese Archives of the Grand Council/Telegrams, 20, Month 10, Guangxu 11 years [September 13]. Beijing: Preserved by the First Historical Archives Office of China.

Huang Zhennan 黃鎮南; and Bai Yaotian 白耀天 (punctuated). 2005. Cen Yuying wenji 岑毓英文集 [The collections of Cen Yuying]. Nanning: Guangxi Minzuchubanshe.

Li Genyuan 李根源, ed. Annotated by Lu Weixian 陸衛先 and Yang Wenhu 楊文虎. 2001. Yongchang fu wenzheng juan er 永昌府文征卷2 [The Wenzheng of Yongchang Prefecture, Vol. 2]. Kunming: Yunnan Meishuchubanshe.

Photocopy. 1986. Qing shi lu 清實錄 [Veritable records of the Qing Dynasty (Vols. 1–60)], Vol. 54/55. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Tan Qixiang 譚其驤 (chief editor) et al. 1982. Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中國歷史地圖集 [Historical atlas of China], Vols. 6, 7, 8. Shanghai: Cehui Chubanshe.

Wang Yanwei 王彥威 et al., ed. 1987. Qingji waijiao shiliao 清季外交史料 [Historical data of diplomacy during the Qing Dynasty]. Beijing: Shumu Wenxianchubanshe.

Xia Dongyuan 夏東元, ed. 1982. Zheng Guanying ji juan yi 鄭觀應集卷1 [Collections of Zheng Guanying, Vol. 1]. Shanghai: Shanghai Renminchubanshe.

Xingqiu Map, ed. 2009. Yunnansheng ditu 雲南省地圖 [Yunnan Provincial Map]. Beijing: Xingqiu Dituchubanshe.

Xue Fucheng 薛福成. 1985. Chushi Ying/Fa/Yi/Bi siguo riji 出使英法意比四國日記 [Journal of the mission on Britain/France/Italy/Belgium]. Changsha: Yuelu Chubanshe.

―, comp. 1975. Dianmian huajie tushuo 滇緬劃界圖說 [Illustrated handbook of demarcation between Yunnan and Burma]. Taipei: Chengwen Chubanshe.

―. 1894. Chushi zoushu 出使奏疏 [Memorial of diplomatic mission], published by Xue during the Jiawu year of the Guangxu Emperor reign.

Yao Wendong 姚文棟. 1892. Yunnan kanjie choubian ji 雲南勘界籌邊記 [Boundary survey and building the border of Yunnan]. Chengdu: Zunjing Shuyuan.

Yin Lun 尹倫; Tang Li 唐立; and Zheng Jing 鄭靜. 2010. Zhongguo Yunnan Menglian daiwen guji bianmu 中國雲南孟連傣文古籍編目 [A synopsis of old Dai manuscripts in Menglian County of Yunnan, China]. Kunming: Yunnan Minzuchubanshe.

Yin Mingde 尹明德. 1933. Zhongying bianjie jiaosheshi [A]. Yunnan biandi wenti yanjiu (shangjuan) [C] 中英邊界交涉史 [A]. 雲南邊地問題研究 (上卷) [C] [Negotiation history of China and the British on the boundary (A) Boundary study of Yunnan, Vol. 1 (C)]. Kunming: Yunnan Shengli Kunhua Minzhong Jiaoyuguan.

Zhao Erxun 趙爾巽 et al., ed. 1977. Qing shi gao 清史稿 [Draft of the history of the Qing Dynasty (Vols. 1–48)], Vol. 48, pp. 14686–14687 and 14689. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

2. English
Ainslie, Clement. 1893. Report on a Tour through the Trans-Salween Shan States: Season 1892–93. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, Burma.

Appendix to Memorandum on Questions of Chief Importance in the American and Chinese Department, British Documents on Foreign Affairs, Part I, Series E, Vol. 23.

British and Foreign State Papers [1885–1886], Vol. 77, 123.

Dai Yingcong. 2004. A Disguised Defeat: The Myanmar Campaign of the Qing Dynasty. Modern Asian Studies 38(1): 145–189.

Extract from Report on the Sino-Burmese Frontier, British Documents on Foreign Affairs, Part 1, and Series E, Vol. 23.

Grabowsky, Volker; and Renoo Wichasin. 2008. Chronicles of Chiang Khaeng: A Tai Lü Principality of the Upper Mekong. Honolulu: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawai‘i.

Harvey, G. E. 1925. History of Burma: From the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824. London: Frank Cass.

Legge, James D. D., LLD, trans. 1939. Chinese Classics: A Translation, Critical, and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, and Copious Indexes. London: Oxford University Press.

Liew-Herres, Foon Ming; Grabowsky, Volker; and Renoo Wichasin. 2012. Chronicles of Sipsong Panna: History and Society of a Tai Lue Kingdom Twelfth to Twentieth Century. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

Maring, Joel M.; and Maring, Ester G. 1973. Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Burma. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press.

Photocopies of Selected Official and Private Papers of William Warry (1854–1936), acting assistant Chinese secretary, Peking 1881–82, special service, Government of India from 1885, political officer, Bhamo, Mandalay and Shwegu 1887–89, adviser to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, on Chinese affairs 1890–1904; including photocopies of maps of the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier by Warry. Mss Eur Photo Eur 384 (1878–1903), preserved in India Office Records Diaries held by the European Manuscript Section.
Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Burmo [Burma]-Chinese Boundary, dated the 14th May 1888.
From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Mandalay, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, No. 11, dated the 15th July 1888.
Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888.
From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, No. 15, dated Shwegu, the 18th May 1890.
From Lieutenant H. Daly, Superintendent, Northern Shan States, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 6F., dated Bombay, the 12th June 1891.
From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 9, dated Bhamo, the 15th June 1891.

Sadan, Mandy. 2008. A Guide to Colonial Sources on Burma: Ethnic & Minority Histories of Burma in the India Office Records, British Library. Bangkok: Orchid Press.

Sao Sāimöng Mangrāi. 1965. The Shan States and the British Annexation. Ithaca Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University.

―. 1981. The Pādæng Chronicle and the Jengtung State Chronicle Translated. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan.

Supplement to Report of the intelligence officer on Tour with the Superintendent, Northern Shan States, 1895–96, 3

Thongchai Winichakul. 1994. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo–Body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Tracts Vol. 606, under the catalogue: Colquhoun Expedition into Burmah. Opinions of the Press, London, 1882; under the correspondent: Overland China Mail, March 7th, 1882 (pp. 7–8) and “Times of India,” August 8th, 1882 (pp. 21–23).

Tracts Vol. 606, The “Times,” September 12th, 1882.

Tracts Vol. 606, Direct Commerce with the Shan States and West of China, by Railway from Rangoon to Kiang-Hung, on the Upper Kamboja River, on the South-west Frontier of China. Memorial No. 48 Thereon. From the Wakefield Chamber of Commerce. To the Lords of her majesty’s treasury, 15th of November 1868, London: 1869 [Parliamentary Paper, “Rangoon & Western China,” 28, A. Sess. 1866, Pa. 12 and 14.

Tracts Vol. 606. Overland Communication with western China. A brief statement of how the matter stands at present by R. G. with a map. Liverpool: Webb, Hunt & Ridings, 9, Castle Street. Overland communication with China. The Chambers of Liverpool and Manchester.

Tracts Vol. 727, Diary of Events of Military Interest in Burma for January 1894 Bhamo and the North.

Treaty Series. No. 19. 1894 Convention between Britain and China, Article III of the Convention of July 24, 1886, Relative to Burmah and Thibet [Tibet]. Signed at London, March 1, 1894. Ratifications exchanged at London, August 23, 1894. London: Printed for her Majesty’s Stationery Office, by Harrison and Sons, St. Martins Lane. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online. Copyright 2005 ProQuest Information and Learning Company.

Books and Articles:
1. Chinese
Feng Yue 馮越; and Qi Pengfei 齊鵬飛. 2006. Zhongmian bianjie tanpan shulue 中緬邊界談判述略 [A brief study of the Sino-Burma frontier negotiations and amendment of several related historic facts]. Journal of Hunan University of Science Technology (Social Science Edition) 9(6): 55–60.

Guo Yue 郭銳. 2012. Zhongmian waren guojia yishi jiangou de lishi xushi 中緬佤人國家意識建構的歷史敘事 [Historical narrative of the national awareness between China and Burma]. World Ethno-National Studies 1: 20–28.

Hamashita Takeshi 濱下武志. Zhu Yingui 朱蔭貴, trans. 1999. Jindai Zhongguo de guoji qiji: Chaogong maoyi tixi yu jindai yazhou jingji quan 近代中國的國際契機―朝貢貿易體系與近代亞洲經濟圈 [International opportunity of modern China: The tributary trade system and the economic circle of modern Asia]. Beijing: Zhongguo Shehuikexue Chubanshe.

Liu Bokui 劉伯奎. 1946. Zhongmian jiewu wenti 中緬界務問題 [The Sino-Burmese boundary problem]. Shanghai: Zhengzhong Chubanshe.

Lü Yiran 呂一燃. 1995. Xue Fucheng yu Zhongying dianmian jiewu jiaoshe薛福成與中英滇緬界務交涉 [Negotiation between Xue Fucheng and boundary issues of China and Britain]. China’s Borderland History and Geography Studies 2: 57–72.

Peng Jianying 彭建英. 2004. Zhongguo chuantong jimi zhengce luelun 中國傳統羈縻政策略論 [On the evolution of the traditional mollification of the Chinese ancient central dynasties for minorities]. Journal of Northwest University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) 34(1): 104–108.

Yu Dingbang 餘定邦. 2000. Zhongmian guanxi shi 中緬關係史 [China-Burma relationship history]. Beijing: Guangmingribao Chubanshe.

Zhang Chengsun 張誠孫. 1937. Zhongying Dianmian jiangjie wenti 中英滇緬疆界問題 [Dian-Burmese boundary issues of China and Britain]. Beijing: Hafu Yanjingxueshe.

Zhang Zijian 張子建. 2007. Xue Fucheng zai Zhongying <Xuyi Dianmianjie shangwu tiaokuan> Zhong dui beiduanjie de huafen 薛福成在中英<續議滇緬界・商務條款>中對北段界的劃分 [Xue Fucheng’s demarcation on the north boundary in the China-Britain clause: <Resumption treaty of China and Britain on the Yunnan-Burma border and trade in services of the clauses>]. Journal of Yunnan National University (Social Science) 1(1): 108–118.

Zhu Shaohua 朱昭華. 2007. Zhongmian bianjie wenti yanjiu: Yi jindai Zhongying bianjie tanpan wei zhongxin 中緬邊界問題研究―以近代中英邊界談判為中心 [Studies of China-Burma borderland issues: Centering on the Chinese-British borderland negotiation during modern times]. Ha Erbin: Heilong Jiang Jiaoyuchubanshe.

―. 2004. Xue Fucheng yu Dianmian bianjie tanpan zai yanjiu 薛福成與滇緬邊界談判再研究 [A reappraisal of Xue Fucheng and the negotiations of the boundary of China’s Yunnan Province and Burma]. China’s Borderland History and Geography Studies 14(1): 43–51.

2. English
Crosthwaite, C. E. 1912. The Pacification of Burma. London: Frank Cass. Reprinted in 1968 by Frank Cass.

Giersch, C. Pat. 2006. Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Goldston, Desley; and Stuart-Fox, Martin, comp. 2019. Engaging Asia: Essays on Laos and Beyond in Honour of Martin Stuart-Fox. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Grabowsky, Volker. 2006. Die Gemeinwesen der Tai in Yunnan und ihre Tributbeziehungen mit China [The polities of the Tai in Yunnan and their tribute relations with China]. In Han-Zeit: Festschrift fur Hans Stumpfeldt aus Anlass seines 65. Geburtstages [Han time: commemorative for Hans Stumpfeldt on the occasion of his 65th birthday], edited by Michael Friedrich and Reinhard Emmerich, pp. 573–593. Lun Wen: Studien zur Geistesgeschichte und Literatur in China 8 [Studies on intellectual history and literature in China 8]. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Higgins, Roland L. 1992. The Tributary System. In Pacific Century: The Emergence of a Modern Pacific Asia, edited by Mark Borthwick et al., p. 30. Boulder: Westview Press.

Horstmann, Alexander; and Wadley, Reed L., eds. 2006. Centering the Margin: Agency and Narrative in Southeast Asian Borderlands. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Hughes, Richard W. 1999. Burma’s Jade Mines: An Annotated Occidental History. Journal of Geo- literary Society 14(1): 15–35.

Li Yi. 2016. Governing the Chinese in Multi-ethnic Colonial Burma between the 1890s and 1920s. South East Asia Research 24(1): 135–154.

Liew-Herres, Foon Ming. 1996. Luchuan-Pingmian Campaigns (1436–1449) in the Light of Official Chinese Historiography. Oriens Extremus 39(2): 162–203.

Liew-Herres, Foon Ming; and Grabowsky, Volker. 2008. Lan Na in Chinese Historiography: Sino–Tai Relations as Reflected in the Yuan and Ming Sources (13th to 17th Centuries). Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

Ma Jianxiong. 2014. The Rise of Gentry Power on the China–Burma Frontier since the 1870s: The Case of the Peng Family in Mianning, Southwest Yunnan. International Journal of Asian Studies 11(1): 25–51.

Michaud, Jean. 1999. Handling Mountain Minorities in China, Vietnam and Laos: From History to Current Concerns. Asian Ethnicity 10(1): 25–49.

Mitton, G. E., ed. 1936. Scott of the Shan Hills: Orders and Impressions. London: Butler & Tanner Ltd.

Mote, Frederick W. 1999. Imperial China 900–1800. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Nish, I.; Partridge, M.; Watt, D. Cameron; and Bourne, K., eds. 1989/1995. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print. Frederick: University Publications of America.

Perdue, Peter C. 2015. The Tenacious Tributary System. Journal of Contemporary China 24(96): 1002–1014.

“Shan States.” n.d. Wikiwand., accessed September 2, 2019.

Stuart-Fox, Martin. 1998. The Lao Kingdom of Lān Xāng: Rise and Decline. Bangkok: White Lotus.

Syatauw, J. J. G. 1961. Some Newly Established Asian States and the Development of International Law. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Unger, Jonathan. 1997. Not Quite Han: The Ethnic Minorities of China’s Southwest. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 29(3): 67–76.

Wade, Geoff, ed. 2015. Asian Expansions: The Historical Experiences of Polity Expansion in Asia. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Walker, Andrew, ed. 2009. Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and State in Southeast Asia. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.

1) The full name of this confidential document kept in the British Library is: “Photocopies of Selected Official and Private Papers of William Warry (1854–1936), acting assistant Chinese secretary, Peking 1881–82, special service, Government of India from 1885, political officer, Bhamo, Mandalay and Shwegu 1887–89, adviser to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, on Chinese affairs 1890–1904; including photocopies of maps of the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier.” For the sake of convenience, this article will refer to this document as “Warry’s report” in an abbreviated form.

2) Previously known as the Oriental and India Office Library, or the British Library: Asia, Pacific and African Collections (APAC).

3) The Shan States were under the jurisdiction of the colonial power, namely Great Britain. Moreover, “the single Shan State within the Union of Burma, including the former Wa States, was formed in 1948.” For more details see Maring and Maring (1973, 223–224). Therefore, the term of Shan States will preferably be used in this article, because this term relates to the administrative and political context during the time of British jurisdiction. However, the footnote 23 is an exception, as Kokang is now part of the Shan State of present-day Burma.

4) The British National Archives have a description of Warry in the catalogue Photocopies of Selected Official and Private Papers of William Warry (1854–1936),, accessed August 4, 2019.

5) All 18 dynasties in the history of the Chinese Empire may be regarded as the imperial court or Chinese Empire. In this article, the authors use “Qing court” to refer specifically to the last dynasty in the history of the Chinese Empire. Otherwise, “imperial court” or “Chinese Empire” is used.

6) Ancient Chinese calendar, also known as the lunar calendar. The Gregorian date is in parentheses.

7) The original convention paper is now kept in the National Palace Museum of Taipei: The Green Borderlands: Treaties and Maps that Defined the Qing’s Southwest Boundaries; Dates: 2016-12-10–2017-06-18; Gallery: (Northern Branch) Exhibition Area I 104,, accessed August 4, 2019.

8) Mengting: Mengding Tribal Prefecture (Meng ding yu yi fu 孟定御夷府) was established in 1382 during the Ming Dynasty. It was first established during the Yuan Dynasty in 1294 as Mengding Lu (the same rank as prefecture). For details, see Dao (1989, 271–278).

Mengyang, Yunyuan Prefecture, was established in Moeng Ying (in Upper Burma) in 1382. It was renamed Mengyang Prefecture in 1384, and the Mengyang prefectural administration was abolished in 1449. For details, see Liew-Herres and Grabowsky (2008, 27).

Mupang: Mubang Military-cum-Civilian Pacification Commission (Mu bang jun min xuan wei shi si 木邦军民宣慰使司) was established in 1289 by the Yuan Dynasty. Mubang Prefecture was established in 1382. For details, see Dao (1989, 317–338).

9) The tusi system was “a mechanism of territorial control and expansion, which was used by Chinese polities over a period of approximately 2,000 years” from the Western Han Dynasty (Wade 2015, 74). “The tusi system is actually a generic name for a variety of systems that successive Chinese polities used to control and exploit polities that bordered them,” and it had various names over time. It “was a common phenomenon under many empires, Asian and Western.” The tusi system was an attractive but also controversial topic. The authors believe it was a formal and strict bureaucratic system that was utilized to manage and expand the territories of the south and west non-Han districts (it was set up in seven provinces in the Ming Dynasty, while the expansion occurred mainly in Yunnan/Guangxi and Guizhou) from the Yuan until the Qing Dynasty.

10) Even though several maps of the Qing Dynasty clearly show the borderlines between China and Burma, the demarcation had not been defined under international law. See Maps 1 and 2.

11) The clash between European and indigenous Southeast Asian concepts of sovereignty and border has been elucidated by Thongchai Winichakul (1994), using Siam (Thailand) as a case in point.

12) Menglian refers to 猛璉 or 孟璉 in Chinese historical documents; 孟连 is the Chinese name in modern times. The pronunciation of Menglian in the Tai language is Moeng Laem. To clarify, when referring to Chinese documents, the authors use Menglian as the pinyin pronunciation in Mandarin. But when referring to English or Tai documents, they use Moeng Laem. As for Cheli, Chinese classic documents write 車裏 or 撤裏. It is located mainly in present-day Sipsong Panna Tai Autonomous Prefecture (Xishuangbanna dai zu zi zhi zhou 西双版纳傣族自治州). In Warry’s report, he used Khiang Hung to name the capital of Sipsong Panna. This was Chiang Rung in Tai, Jinghong (景洪) in Mandarin.

13) The collector and oral translator is Bo San (Tai: Po Saeng Sam), a famous scribe in Moeng Laem. As Volker Grabowsky (Goldston and Stuart-Fox 2019, 311–312) transcribes, “Po Saeng Sam wrote his short biography on a sheet of mulberry paper, the traditional writing material, on the first day of the Buddhist New Year: ‘In 1948, [I] was ordained as a novice until 1955. I married in 1959 and became a local administrative official in 1981. I started to work for the Buddhist religion in 1985. And then, I made up my mind to transmit [these scripts] to the generations of my children and grandchildren.’ Throughout the Tai minority areas, Po Saeng Sam possesses one of the largest private collections of manuscripts, the vast majority of which he wrote himself.” The manuscript is written in the Tai Lue version of the Tham script on mulberry (sa) paper. This manuscript records historical events from the years AD 1488 to 2001. The manuscript, copied in 2006, comprises 22 folios. This manuscript has been collected also in Yin et al. (2010).

14) Of the airplane that appeared in Menglian in 1896, there is no reliable evidence other than the Tai script records. The authors presume the manuscript may have mistaken the specific date. Such mistakes are common in Tai chronicles.

15) For details on the ethnic groups in Yunnan, see Ma (2014, 25–51), Unger (1997, 67–76), and Michaud (2009, 25–49).

16) Zuo Zhuan, Lord Zhao Year 23 (左传,昭公23年).

17) See Liew-Herres (1996).

18) The Ming court set up three Sub-Pacification Commissions and six Pacification Commissions (San xuan liu we 三宣六慰) around southwest Yunnan, Upper Burma, and the northern parts of Thailand and Laos. The three Sub-Pacification Commissions were named Nandian, Longchuan, and Ganya, while the six Pacification Commissions were Cheli, Miandian, Mubang, Babai Dadian, Mengyang, and Laowo.

19) Burma started the war because of the dissatisfactory tributary relationships with Mengding, Gengma, Menglian, and Cheli (see Zhang 1937, 77–80). But the underlying reason lay in the territorial ambitions of the Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885) toward Siam. Cheli and Menglian were important passages for the provision of materials. See Harvey (1925, 241, 253, 261) and Giersch (2006, 4–6).

20) For more details, see Dai (2004, 145–189).

21) Burma became involved in the Burmese-Siamese War, while the Qing soldiers could not bear the subtropical climate.

22) Jimi, also named the Jimi fuzhou system (羁縻府州制), was a system of “prefectures under loose reins.” Like the former tusi system, it was an autonomous administrative and political organization system used in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. See Peng (2004, 104–108).

23) Kokang now is in the Shan State of Burma.

24) This will be discussed in later sections. Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween Section of the Bhamo-Chinese Frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888.

25) The Lao kingdom of Lan Sang (literally, “[the kingdom of] one million elephants”) had split between 1707 and 1713 into the three kingdoms of Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south, each of which claimed to be a successor state of Lan Sang. After 1778–79, all three Lao kingdoms fell under Siamese suzerainty and became vassal states of Siam. Following the ruthless suppression of a failed attempt by King Anu, the vassal ruler of Vientiane, in 1826–28 to restore Lao independence, only Luang Prabang—which had remained loyal to Bangkok—survived as a semi-autonomous vassal kingdom. Whenever Chinese sources refer to Nan Zhang (Lan Sang), they mean Luang Prabang, whose ruler also acknowledged Chinese overlordship. For details, see Stuart-Fox (1998, 99–141).

26) Kachin Hills belonged to both Burma and China. According to international practice, both countries were entitled to equal sovereignty.

27) This map was probably used as a source of reference by Xue Fucheng, the Qing envoy to Britain, in the negotiation over border demarcation between Yunnan and Burma with British Foreign Secretary Archibald Philip Primrose, Fifth Earl of Rosebery (1847–1929).

28) Kamaing is a town in the Kachin State of the northernmost part of the Union of Myanmar. It is also named Kamine.

29) Tracts, Vol. 606, under the catalog “Colquhoun Expedition into Burmah, Opinions of the Press London, 1882” and the sub-branch “The Times of India, 8th August 1882” (from our own correspondent). Cameron was refused by the local authorities because the French Mekong expedition arrived at Kiang Hung and tried to pass Simao through threat the local authority. The local authorities believed the mission’s intention was too troublesome (Tracts Vol. 606).

30) Sir George Scott Correspondence on the Burma-Chinese Boundary during 1894–96. The documents are kept in the British Library under the Shelf Mark Mss Eur F278/88/89/90.

31) Historical territories were tributary states that had close relationships with the Chinese court or were under the indirect control of the court, for instance, they paid tribute regularly and bestowed gifts and official ranks as appropriate. These tributary states were regarded by the Chinese as historical territories. For further details, see Perdue (2015, 1012).

32) For details of the Demarcation Convention between China and Burma in the 1960s, see Feng and Qi (2006, 55–60).


Vol. 9, No. 2, Carola Erika LOREA


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 2

Contesting Multiple Borders: Bricolage Thinking and Matua Narratives on the Andaman Islands

Carola Erika Lorea*

*Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
e-mail: aricar[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.2_231

In the liquid borderlands between South and Southeast Asia, where refugees from East Bengal were resettled after the massive Partition-induced displacement, the god Ram is narrated as a great model of filial piety but also as the murderer of a low-caste ascetic. The Vaishnava saint Chaitanya is a divine character but also a reproachable renunciate who abandoned his mother and forced her to beg from door to door. The crocodile is an ideal devotee who caught fish to bring as offering for the religious congregation, justifying the introduction of an otherwise forbidden substance on the altar. Drawing on both ethnographic and literary sources, I use recurrent “bundles of stories” such as these, transmitted and performed by the Matua community on the Andaman Islands, to discuss narratives as a way of knowing and to describe “bricolage thinking” in borderland selves. I interpret the aesthetics and the literary devices used