Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Land and Loyalty: Security and the Development of Property Rights in Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Land and Loyalty: Security and the Development of Property Rights in Thailand

Article excerpt

Land and loyalty: Security and the development of property rights in Thailand

By TOMAS LARSSON

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 208. Figures, tables, bibliography, index.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463413000490

Is the rhetoric that 'farmers are the backbone of the Thai nation' still relevant today? In Land and Loyalty, Tomas Larsson offers a nuanced analysis of the emergence of the Thai state very much in conversation with recent critical scholarship (such as that by Andrew Walker and Tyrell Haberkorn; details below) examining how and why appeals to such rhetoric continue to legitimise the disparate work and goals of multiple state and non-state actors within Thailand.

The book begins with an overview explaining that Thailand has been hailed as a phenomenal success in land titling, particularly within Southeast Asia, but rather than stopping there, Larsson's objective is to address how this was enacted. Looking back to the 1855 Bowring treaty, he confronts the more popular images of the Thai state as 'patrimonial and predative' by highlighting the processes through which property rights were enacted.

Through review of newspaper articles, archival records, official correspondence, and policy documents, Larsson carefully considers how security threats have shaped Thai property rights and regimes, and how this in turn has influenced the modern Thai state. By interrogating the Thai state's reactions (and non-reactions) to security threats--such as the interests of colonial British or French powers, or the perceived threat of communism and the American push to counter it--Larsson sheds light on a novel interpretation of the emergence of the modern Thai state and its relationships with citizens and non-citizens.

Perhaps provocative for scholars of contemporary Thailand is this historical positioning of the Thai state, which will be particularly controversial for those who have considered the Thai state as the purveyor of the global market and developer of mega projects that continue to marginalise poor, rural farmers. Larsson illustrates that it was the Thai state and monarchy, in its sometimes xenophobic policy influences (perceived security threats from foreigners, and particularly the Chinese, living in Thailand) that deliberately produced a country of smallholder farmers as opposed to facilitating companies or foreigners to hold large tracts of land. This vision of the Thai state during this time--as a conservative force for smallholder farmers--resonates strangely enough with present-day rhetoric from non-governmental organisations, and with the back-to-agriculture movement that would wish to see farmers gain title over 'sufficient' land for sustainable use, but not necessarily to larger areas of land. Larsson's interpretation is rather different from the usual political economy interpretation which might be expected to emphasise either the power of landowners, or the way that the Thai state has a history of exploiting small farmers.

Chapter 3, 'Weapons of a weak state', also offers a potentially challenging rereading of the Thai state--not as oppressor or authoritative regime--but as a 'weak' actor in its relationships with other states, relying on its weaknesses strategically (cf. James C. Scott's notion of 'weapons of the weak') in its dealings with colonial powers (see also: Larsson's 2007 'Intertextual relations: The geopolitics of land rights in Thailand' article in the journal Political Geography).

Conceptually, Larsson argues that his 'securitisation' approach allows for a more nuanced examination of events and non-events that produce or influence the present (pp. 3-4). A memorable example of a non-event that might be easily overlooked--but nonetheless had material implications for the development of property rights and the large number of smallholders in Thailand--is the government's failure to implement a land tax in Bangkok in 1917. …

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