With the dramatic development of peasant agriculture in Southeast Asia during the middle and late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, land resources -- once abundant and freely available -- came under increasing pressure. Parallel with growing commercialisation, agricultural development was shaped by far-reaching redefinitions of power relationships between landowners and peasants, in regions under colonial and local rule alike. As capitalism spread to peasant economies, it is said, the increased dependency on international markets for export and on cash inputs for modern agricultural production drove the peasantry from relative self-sufficiency and non-monetary relationships into a precarious environment of competition and social disintegration. This triggered the eviction of weaker farmers, and resulted in the concentration of land in the hands of fewer and richer farmers. The inevitable downfall of small peasants is described as a process of indebtedness, loss of land and tenancy and finally eviction as wage labourers or an urban proletariat. Consequently, landlord-tenant relationships are assumed to reflect lopsided arrangements in which land- and capital-rich farmers extract surplus by imposing rents that keep tenants at or below subsistence levels.
Such processes have been observed at given points in time in some parts of Southeast Asia, notably Lower Burma around 1930 (with 50 per cent of villagers landless), in Java around 1960 or in central Luzon in the early 1970s. (1) The Central Plain of Thailand represents a meaningful example of a market-oriented rice bowl and appears to be an exceptional case. Unlike other regions in Thailand, most human settlements there are recent and the reclamation of the Chao Phraya Delta has been associated with the export-oriented rice economy. This region underwent several crises during the twentieth century, prompting gloomy predictions. However, a recent study has shown that -- contrary to common wisdom -- the evolution of the land system over the last century is best characterised by its remarkable resilience rather than either a Marxist scenario of land concentration or a Malthusian process of farm fragmentation. (2)
The surge of the rice economy in Thailand is thought to have begun with the signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855, which inaugurated new commercial relationships between Siam and England. The ensuing dramatic expansion of the rice frontier was fuelled by market demand and by the emancipation of the peasantry from corvee (unpaid labour) and bondage as a result of the reforms of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910). These historical circumstances have been described in numerous works whose salient points are recalled here. (3) The Siamese nobility, with the loss of its control over labour and the increased commoditisation of land, acquired most of the land being reclaimed around Bangkok by the state or by designated private companies. While rice had been cultivated in the flood-prone regions of the delta for a long time, what will be referred to here as the 'landlord area' spread over most of the lower Chao Phraya East Bank, including the Rangsit Scheme (see Figure 1). In this area, urban-based landlords initially at tempted to cultivate their land through bonded or wage labour but eventually left it to tenants, while retaining ownership up to the present time. In the rest of the 'rice frontier', however, land was reclaimed by individual independent peasants. Three areas -- the flood-prone area and other older settlements in the upper delta, the landlord area, and the 'silent frontier' (4) -- can be contrasted in terms of ecology and history.
Concern about tenancy emerged fully after World War Two. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, more critical problems of agricultural stagnation and population growth developed into an agrarian crisis, and the land issue became the subject of heated academic and political debate. …