Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

From Poor Peasants to Entrepreneurial Farmers: The Transformation of Rural Life in Northeast Thailand

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

From Poor Peasants to Entrepreneurial Farmers: The Transformation of Rural Life in Northeast Thailand

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION Over the past 30 years, a transformation has occurred in the lives of the people of Northeast Thailand (Isan), and of many rural areas in East and Southeast Asia. Historically regarded (and even derided) as "simple peasants," concerned only with growing enough food to feed themselves, they have embraced the marketplace and thrived, setting off a cascade of changes, including increased education, and feeding aspirations. Agricultural advances allowed a shift from subsistence to entrepreneurial farming, and off-farm employment has become more common. These transitions have been accompanied by a shift from a village-centric social system to a more broadly connected social network. The resulting changes have dramatically altered the social fabric, including demography, social organization, culture, health, education, and employment, as well as aspirations and identity. The transformation is still in progress, but given the willingness of the Isan people to embrace change, the increasing globalization of the region can be expected to continue.

From 2005 to 2014, when a military coup brought all political activity to a halt, Bangkok was kept in near-constant turmoil by massive street demonstrations that pitted the mostly agricultural population of the Northeastern Region (commonly called Isan) against the governing elite and the urban middle class. On one side of the barricades were the red-shirted supporters of populist prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra (who was ousted by a coup in 2006) and his sister Yingluck (who was overthrown by the army in 2014), many of whom were farmers from the Northeast. On the other side were their yellow-shirted middle-class opponents from the capital city. Although the Red Shirts asserted that they were defending popular democracy, and the Yellow Shirts proclaimed their loyalty to the King and distaste for Thaksin's corruption, the real struggle was as much over regional, class, and cultural identity as it was differences in political ideology. At stake was the allocation of power and prestige in Thai society, which had traditionally privileged urban over rural, rich over poor, and the Central Region over the rest of the country. The predominantly rural people of Isan felt particularly aggrieved by their long-standing social and cultural subordination to Bangkok. They had appeared to be politically passive peasants for a long time, but that was clearly no longer the case.

The Northeastern Region covers one-third of the Kingdom's land area and is home to 22 million people, who constitute one-third of Thailand's total population. The mostly Lao-speaking inhabitants have historically been subsistence-oriented rice farmers, characterized by Thai elites as poor and unsophisticated, ignorant peasants who sold their votes to the highest bidder because they lacked the education and values needed to be good citizens.

In fact, however, the Isan villagers have never been the "simple peasants" conceived of in the elite imagination. Today their life as farmers is even more removed from that persistent historical stereotype, due to a process of very rapid change, one that has broadened their economic base and provided greater profits and increased social mobility. This process is referred to by social scientists as an "agrarian transformation." It involves a major restructuring of agriculture from subsistence-oriented to marketoriented. It also involves changes in all aspects of rural life, including technology, economics, social relations, and cultural values.

Despite the magnitude of these changes, however, the perceptions of the region held by policymakers, the mass media, and the urban public in Thailand have lagged behind changes on the ground1 so that many still conceptualize the situation of the rural Northeast according to an outmoded model ("the conventional model") that depicts the region as it was before it entered into a period of very rapid development beginning in the late 1980s. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.