Thailand: Background Sketch


                                                                   Murray J. Leaf


Put most simply, at the national level Thailand is governed by its military and civilian bureaucracy, subject to limited legislative oversight from time to time.  At the village level, it is run by consensus. 


More technically, at the national level Thailand is a centralized bureaucracy dominated by an administrative oligarchy. That is, government is controlled by the heads of what elsewhere would be regarded as the executive branch, rather than by the legislature or by a system of checks and balances.  In Thai theory, this administration has historically developed as an agency system, meaning that the administrators have been agents of the king, acting for the king.  Historically, this theory began from the claim that the king was the absolute owner of the labor of all free men, and by implication had disposal of all land.  This claim has been moderated by a series of reforms over the last two centuries, but as a legal matter individual rights are still very clearly subordinate to the claims of the state.  At the times in the modern period when Thailand has had a functioning legislature, this legislature has been so organized that the  heads of the administration, particularly of the military, still retained control of policy making and the budget.


This administratively dominated government is combined with a market-based economic system and a fully developed set of financial and market institutions, with long historic roots. Although it has never been colonized, Thailand has been open to every phase of the evolution of the world economic system, including every phase of the rise of European power.


At the village level, the economic picture varies by region. Market institutions penetrate more deeply into village life in the central plain immediately around Bangkok, and much less deeply in the northeast and the hilly areas of the north and west.  Villages have had a high level of autonomy over most of the last several hundred years, not because the government has conceded control but simply because it has been unable to implement the absolute power over land and people it has always claimed.  However in the last few decades, however, the government has conceded more control in theory but exercised more in fact.  


Land and People:


The land area is 514,000 square kilometers, about two-fifths of which is  mountains and hills. Agricultural holdings now occupy about 43 percent of the total land area, about 22 million hectares.  There are four major topographic/drainage regions.  They are the central plain and northern mountain region (toward Burma), both of which drain into Gulf of Thailand, the northeast region which drains through Mekong River to the South China Sea, and the south which is an extension of the mountains that border Burma into the Isthmus of Kra and to Malaysia.  The central region is a flat low plain around Bangkok and the upper Gulf of Thailand, which is well supplied with canals and has historically comprised Thailand's main rice production area LePoer. op. cit. p.xiii-xiv.


The population in 1987 was about 53 million, increasing at about 1.9 percent per year. The highest growth was from 1947 to 1960, when the rate of increase was 3.4 percent a year.  The urban population is 17 percent, most of which is in Bangkok. Bangkok is forty time larger than the next largest city, Chang Mai.   The overall population density was 100.5 persons per square kilometer in 1987, varying from 62 in Chiang Mai Province to 3,292 in Bangkok. 84 percent of the population are ethnic Thai, 11 percent Chinese, mostly concentrated in Bangkok, 3-4 percent are Malay, concentrated in  the South, 1 percent are Khmer, and 2 percent are various others, mostly small groups spread in the hilly areas of the North and Northeast. Most of the population identify their religion as Theraveda Buddhism. Malays are predominantly Muslim, and there are some Christians among the Hill tribes LePoer. op. cit. p.xiv.


Agriculture absorbs 69 percent of labor the force and supports 80  percent of the total population (in the mid-1980's).  Historically it has made up 80 to 90 percent of exports, with tin being the major non-agricultural export. In recent years, the export of manufactured goods has expanded greatly, while agricultural exports have grown slowly.  In 1981 the proportions for agriculture and manufactures were 48 percent and 35 percent, respectively. In 1986 they were 34 percent and 55 percent LePoer. op. cit. p.295.  Major crops are now rice, maize, cassava, rubber, sugarcane, coconut, cotton, kenaf (a course fiber similar to jute), and tobacco. The gains in crop land have been directly related to losses in forest.  Forest cover in the country decreased from 50  percent in 1961 to less than 10 percent in  1987  LePoer. op. cit. p.xv.


Since the mid-1970s, the largest import has been oil, followed by manufactured goods. Thailand now consistently maintains a negative trade balance with Japan for the same reason as Korea -- because (generally through Thai-Japanese joint ventures) it buys parts and raw materials which it assembles into finished or semi-finished goods for sale to third countries.


Evolution of the National Political System:


In this century the slogan "Nation, Religion, King" (chat,satsana, phramahakasat) [1] has been repeatedly referred to as describing the essential basis of Thai society.  In this, "religion" refers to Buddhism and more specifically the Buddhist sangha (community), and "king" of course refers to the monarchy. The reference of "nation" is ambiguous.  In some contexts  it seems to mean mainly the bureaucracy, sometime the Thai people, and sometime the Thai political system and people in a more inclusive sense. But in the recurring coups that have characterized the Thai political process in this century, the role of the spokesman for the nation has consistently been taken not been the actual people or the electorate, but rather by the king. 


The Thai monarchy is traced back to the 13th century kingdom of Sukhothai and its more enduring successor, Ayuthaya, which lasted until 1869.  Although the Thais themselves were migrants from southern China, the states they founded utilized ideas and institutions very largely from South Asian sources that were already established in the kingdoms in this area that preceded theirs.  Concepts of social order from Hindu sources, together with a well developed agricultural system, originated with the Funan Empire, which controlled  all of present Cambodia  and the center of modern Thailand from the 1st to 6th centuries AD. Theraveda Buddhism was accepted from the Mons, culturally related to the Khmer, who had previously occupied the heart of what is now Thailand and who had themselves accepted it from missionaries in the 6th century. Girling p.17.


After accepting Buddhism, the Mons founded the independent kingdom of Dvarati, which still retained much of the Funan system.  In the 11th century this kingdom became subject to the Khmer Empire, whose capital was at Angkor. In 1238 (according to traditional accounts), the Thais in their turn laid claim to the legacy of Dvarati when  "when Tai chieftains overthrew the Khmer at Sukhothai, the capital of Angkor's outlying northwestern province, and established a Tai kingdom".  Sukhothai is in the center of the present northern region, on the banks of the Mae Nam Yom (Yom River), about 375 km. due north of Bangkok.  Sukhothai was soon strengthened by other ethnic Thai fleeing Kubla Khan after he conquered Nanchao, an important kingdom on the southern border of China in the area of original Thai settlement, already well established as a source of Thai migrations into Southeast Asia.  At the same time, another group of Thai immigrants set up a rival capital further north at Chiang Mai. The first recorded king of Sukhothai was Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the great; 1277-1317). He established relations with China, acknowledged the Emperor as nominal overlord, developed the Thai alphabet from the Sanskrit deva nagri, and brought in Chinese artisans to develop a Thai ceramics industry that was important for 500 years. But the kingdom did not survive long after his death.  


The kingdom of Ayuthaya was founded in 1350 by king Ramathibodi. It was he who declared Theraveda Buddhism the state religion in 1360, and compiled a legal code based on the conceptions of social order and social obligations in the Hindu Dharmashastras together with Thai custom. LePoer. op. cit. p.11. Ayuthaya is just a short distance up-river from modern Bangkok and soon became the center of an ever-expanding system of canals which provided transportation and inundation irrigation for the rice fields that have continued to supply by far the largest part of Thailand's rice trade until the present time.


Where the social system of Sukhothai is represented as personalistic and individualistic, that of Ayuthaya is represented as rigidly codified and hierarchical, with fixed social ranks based on birth.  Since land was abundant, but could not be used without labor, the system of Ayuthaya closely tied together rank, power, and control over people:


  "Every freeman had to be registered as a servant, or phrai ..., with the local lord, or nai..., for military service and corvee labor on public works and on the land of the official to whom he was assigned. The phrai could also meet his labor obligation by paying a tax. If he found the forced labor under his nai repugnant, he could sell himself into slavery to a more attractive nai, who then paid a fee to the government in compensation for the loss of corvee labor. As much as one-third of the manpower supply into the nineteenth century was composed of phrai.

            Wealth, status, and political influence were interrelated. The king allocated ricefields to governors, military commanders, and court officials in payment for their services to the crown according to the sakdi na...system. The size of each official's allotment was determined by the number of persons he could command to work it.  The amount of manpower a particular nai could command determined his status relative to others in the hierarchy and his wealth. At the apex of the hierarchy, the king, who was the realm's largest landholder, also commanded the services of the largest number of phrai, called phrai luang (royal servants), who paid taxes served in the royal army, and worked on the crown lands. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.14.


The obligation of phrai luang was considered to be six months of duty per year.  Girling p.28.   At this time, the freemen assigned or attached to local lords (phrai son) were in total much more numerous than the phrai luang, and included freemen who were under the command of provincial governors, in a system of numerous and semi-autonomous provinces centering on provincial towns, like small city-states. 


The meaning of sakdi na is literally "field power" but does not mean direct power over land so much as direct power of people which is the basis of power over land. 


"Although at first this [sakdi na] may have represented actual measured rice the fifteenth century it did not carry this meaning, for even Buddhist monks, housewives, slaves, and Chinese merchants were assigned sakdi na.  Ordinary peasant freemen were given sakdi na of 25, slaves were ranked 5, ...and petty officials, from 50 to 400. At the sakdi na rank of 400 began the bureaucratic nobility, the khunang, whose members ranged from the heads of minor departments at a na of 400 to  the highest ministers of state, who enjoyed a rank of 10,000.  The upper levels of the nobility ranked with the junior members of the royal family, and most princes ranked above them, up the heir-apparent, whose rank was 100,000.  In the exhaustive laws of Trailok's reign, which read like a directory of the entire society, every possible position and status is ranked and assigned a designation of sakdi na, thus specifying everyone's relative position."[2]


In 1511 Ayuthaya received a diplomatic mission from Portuguese, and in 1516 signed a Treaty with Portugal including commercial concessions. In 1592 a similar treaty "gave the Dutch a privileged position  in the rice trade." LePoer. op. cit. p.17.


While this was happening, over the period of the 13th to 15th centuries, the rice economy of the central plain was adapted to new varieties of rice that were once more productive and more marketable, while the other regions continued with traditional varieties grown for local consumption:


" In the highlands, where rainfall had to be supplemented by a system of irrigation that controlled the water level in the flooded paddies, the Thai sowed the glutinous rice that is still the staple in the geographical regions of the North and Northeast.But in the floodplain of the Chao Phraya, farmers turned to a different variety of rice--the so-called floating rice, a slender, nonglutinous grain introduced from Bengal-- that would grow fast enough to keep pace with the rise of the water level in the lowland fields." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.17.


The new rice produced an abundant surplus that was sold mainly to India and China. Canals were built to open new areas and move it to the port (Bangkok), which also distributed water in the flood season, and "In the process, the Chao Phraya Delta--mud flats between the sea and the firm land hitherto considered unsuitable for habitation-- was reclaimed and placed under cultivation" Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.17.


At the same time, however, other events led to greater institutional centralization. From its inception, Ayuthaya had been ruled by sending members of the royal family to provinces to govern and send back tribute. Once there, they acted with considerable independence and often pursued their own interests in opposition to the center.  In 1569 the Burmese attacked and conquered Chiang Mai, and from there, with the assistance of Thai "rebels" attacked and destroyed Ayuthaya itself, carrying off most of the royal family, among many others.  Dhammaraja, a Thai governor who aided the Burmese, was installed as a vassal king at Ayuthaya[3].  (Because of the abundance of land and the shortage of labor, captives were a major goal of military activity throughout the region.) 


King Naresuan, the  son of the defeated king, was able to reestablish control and drive the Burmese back shortly thereafter. Then, to avoid in the future the "treason" which he saw as leading to the defeat, he attempted to further unify the country with a system of central control which lasted until the reforms of King Chulalonghorn in the 19th century, and which leaves lingering traces still.  Instead of sending the royal rulers out to their provinces, he kept them in the capital, and sent a new class of court officials to rule the provinces in their place, directly responsible to the king.  Power struggles with the royal family still continued, but they were confined to the capital and now longer involved relations between the capital and the tributary states. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.15;Girling p.28.  At the same time, the king:


"... decreed that all freemen subject to phrai service had become phrai luang, bound directly to the king, who distributed the use of their service to his officials.  This measure gave the king a theoretical monopoly on all manpower, and the idea developed that since the king owned the services of all the people, he also possessed all the land. Ministerial offices and governorships -- and the sakdi na that went with them-- were usually inherited positions dominated by a few families often connected to the king by marriage. Indeed, marriage was frequently used by Thai kings to cement alliances between themselves and powerful families, a custom prevailing through the nineteenth century. As a result of this policy, the kings wives usually numbered in the dozens." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.15.


Contacts with the West, India, and China, and the internal commercial development of Thailand, subsequently continued with external trade as a royal monopoly and strong areal concentration in and around Bangkok. King Narai (1657-88) was particularly open to foreign influences, but this openness also created an internal reaction which caused Thailand to undertake the only period of isolation in its history. In 1664, the Dutch used force to exact a treaty granting extraterritorial rights.  In response, Narai turned to the French for assistance in  constructing fortifications, and also to build a new palace at Lop Buri.  At the same time, "French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into the country." And the French king was excited by the prospect that Narai might convert to Christianity. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.17.  These activities caused resentment among nobles and the Buddhist leadership. When word spread that Narai was dying, one of his generals, Phra Phetracha, killed the designated heir, a Christian, and had Narai's foreign minister, who was Greek, put to death along with a number of missionaries. The arrival of English warships provoked a massacre of more Europeans.  Phetracha then "seized the throne, expelled the remaining foreigners, and ushered in a 150-year period during which the Thais consciously isolated themselves from contacts with the West." Seekins in LePoer op. cit. p.17.


The  period of isolation ended in 1767 with the final fall of Ayuthaya to an attack by three Burmese armies Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.18. The next ruler, Taksin, moved the capital to Thonburi, just across the river from modern Bangkok. Taksin rather quickly expelled the Burmese, and reunited Kingdom by 1776.  But he "eventually developed delusions of his own divinity." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.18.  He was deposed and executed by his ministers. The throne then fell to Chakkri, a general who had played a leading role with Taksin in the struggle against the Burmese. ibid.


Chakkri was the founder of the present Thai ruling house. He moved the capital to Bangkok, and reigned there from 1782-1809 as King Yo Fa (Rama I).  An energetic and capable ruler, he revived the economy and the arts. He also composed a new edition of Ramakian (the Thai version of the  Ramayana) which had been destroyed by Burmese, and began a territorial expansion at the expense of Cambodia and Burma that was only checked by the rise of French and British power in those areas. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.19.


Lo Fa died without naming a successor.  There has never been a rigid rule of succession in the Thai monarchies.  If the king did not designate a successor in his lifetime, it was left to a council of advisors (and sometimes to factional wars). King Yo Fa was followed by Loet La (Rama II) (1809-1824), who was the father of the next two kings.  The first of these, Nang Klao (Rama III), agreed to treaties which allowed the British and Americans modest trading concessions in 1826 and 1833, respectively.  But in 1850 he flatly rejected their requests  for trading privileges similar to those which these powers and others had previously obtained by force in China.  Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.19. Later monarchs were forced to be more accommodating. 


Nang Klao was succeed by his forty-seven-year-old half brother, Mongkut (Rama IV), who had been placed in a monastery by his father to avoid a bloody factional struggle. Mongkut had remained a monk for 25 years, obtaining a wide education and establishing a reputation as an authority on the Pali Buddhist scriptures. He had "extensive contact with Western missionaries" and had studied western languages, mathematics,  and science. He also created and led a reformed order of Siamese Theraveda Buddhism, which rejected usages not grounded solidly in the ancient texts and argued against performing rituals mechanically rather than for the lessons they were intended to convey, thoughtfully and purposefully.  Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.20.


King Mongkut greatly broadened the opening to the West, and saw clearly the need to use the knowledge and technology of the West in order to maintain independence from the West.  "Against the advice of his court, he abolished the old royal trade monopoly in commodities and in 1855 signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Britain." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.20. He permitted British to buy and sell in Thailand without intermediaries, and to establish a consulate.  British subjects were given extraterritorial rights. Similar treaties followed in France and the U.S.. These commercial relations "revolutionized the Thai economy and connected it to world monetary system." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.21.


The main transition, however, was made by Mongkut's son, king Chulalonghorn (Rama V; 1868-1910).  As Girling describes it, this involved "the creation of a colonial style, centralized, bureaucratic state" involving "the creation of a colonial style modern sector with the diffusion of a money economy into the traditional sector" p. 61.  Although the bureaucracy which Chulalonghorn founded as an adjunct to royal rule has now taken power as the ruling oligarchy and moved the king into the background, the fundamental outlines of this system have not changed.


Overcoming substantial and persistent opposition of his royal relations, who had much too lose, and holding off the threat of foreign domination while making effective use of foreign advisors,  Chulalonghorn gave up the traditional royal claim to own the labor of his subjects and the land they farmed.  In their place, he eliminated slavery and the corvee and gave the peasants the right to own (and sell) both labor and land.  At the same time, he established a professional bureaucracy, judiciary, and military based on merit and training. Functional ministries such as Finance, Defence, and Interior replaced the old regional ministries (North, South, West) even though the old names were in some cases retained.

Chulalonghorn also pressed temple schools to give modern education, studied western educational methods, and established a Ministry of education to introduce modern schooling. Girling p.56-57. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.22. The first railroads were begun in 1897, and by 1903 rails linked the central plain to the British railway system in Malaya.Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.22.


"           The reform period in Siam was one of those rare periods that time and circumstance permit. It was made possible by the convergence of a number of favorable factors:

(a) An enterprising and far-sighted king.

(a) A gifted circle of brothers and close relatives.

(c)The stimulus of external danger... without the disruption caused by war.

(d) The diffusion of a spirit of rational inquiry, challenging old ways and traditional ideas.

(e) The removal, in gradual stages, of inefficient "feudal" survivals like slavery and the corvee.

(f) The consequent release of peasant free-men with an incentive to exploit new economic opportunities provided by the increase in world demand for rice, new means of transportation (steamships replacing sail), and shorter voyages (through the Suez canal). 

(g) The growth of business made possible by the spread of financial institutions.

(h) The large-scale employment of the Chinese immigrant labor (replacing the Thai corvee) for the construction of roads, canals, bridges, ports, buildings.

(i) The extension of a railway network linking in a matter of hours (instead of days or weeks) the outer regions with the capital.

(j) As already noted, the availability of foreign experts, themselves the product no so many decades before of modern education, "careers open to the talents," and the expansion and specialization of government roles."

  The trust of the reformed Thai bureaucracy, ...was felt in three main directions...:(1) the functional reorganization of the ministries and departments based in the capital; (2) penetration of the provinces through the direct replacement of the local ruling aristocracy, carrying on traditional forms of administration, by paid officials responsible to the capital, although a more gradual, indirect approach was followed in the North and South; and (3) the buildup of the military, from an archaic and inefficient feudal levy  in war and a mercenary rank-and-file in pease to a professionally trained force.  The strengthening of the military and the extension of central authority to the provinces went hand in hand. Girling p. 51-53.


Although French and British pressure forced Thailand to give up substantial outlying territories in Burma and along the east bank of Mekong river, from 1892 to 1902 Government revenues increased from 15 million baht to 40 million baht without new taxes, mainly from improved administration. Girling op. cit. p.63. Land and capitation taxes provided 8-12  percent; opium and gambling monopolies produced 40 percent.  Profits from opium were largest source of revenue until 1926. After new Tariff code of 1927, import duties increased bringing in 20 percent of total revenue by 1950.


The new freed peasantry, together with the heavy soils of the flat central plain and abundant water supplies available with a minimum of effort, were the foundation of Thailand's historic importance as one of the worlds most efficient rice producers[4].  Between 1879 and 1934 the value of rice exports increased 25 times while the population doubled.  The area under rice increased from about one million hectares in 1850 to about 5.6 million hectares in 1950.  Almost half the total rice area in 1950 was in the central plain, where a network of canals which facilitated shipping to ports had been steadily expanding since the days of Ayuthaya p. 65. "Rice continued to provide about half the value of all Thai exports until well into the 1950's." Girling 1981 p.65.


Chulalonghorn died in 1910, and was succeeded by Vajiravudh (1910-1925). He coined the slogan "Nation, Religion, King" shortly after his accession to reflect the militant Thai nationalism that was a dominant theme of his reign, and a recurring theme since.  The development of the Chinese nationalist movement under Sun Yat Sen, together with increased Chinese immigration into Thailand to handle the expanding rice trade had led to rising suspicion of Chinese (who had begun to form distinctive enclaves rather than assimilate in the manner of earlier immigrants). This led to discrimination against them, and this in turn led to a "Chinese strike" in 1910 with paralysing effects on the economy.  Vajiravudh's response was  a state program of "cultural nationalism," consisting of sponsoring Thai artistic and literary projects with consistent anti-chinese coloration, to which he devoted about 10 percent of the national budget.  He also developed his own nationalistic para-military force, the "Wild Tiger Corps," and a special Guards Brigade.  All of these evoked criticism from the new professional and technocratic elite that Chulalonghorn had created. Finally:


 "To the consternation of his advisors, who still smarted from Siam's territorial losses to France, Vajiravudh declared war on Germany and took Siam into World War I on the side of the Allies, sending a token expeditionary force to the Western front. This..., however, won Siam favorable amendments to its treaties with France and Britain at the end of the war and also gained a windfall in impounded German shipping for its merchant marine. Siam took part in the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and was a founding member of the League of Nations." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.25.


The absolute monarchy ended, and the present period of oligarchic rule began, with Vajiravudh's successor, king Pajadhipok (1925-1935).  Vajiravudh had left the country with serious financial and administrative problems, which the depression of the 1930's made still worse.  Pajadhipok had shown an inclination to share power, and had suggested replacing the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy.  At the same time, however, he allowed a  "virtual monopolization of high offices by royal princes, in contrast to Vajiravudh's preference for lesser royalty or commoners, at a time when an increasing number of the nobility and wealthy families had been educated and professionally qualified for the highest grades of the bureaucracy."  Girling 1981 op. cit. p.56.  In response to his royal advisors, he did not pursue the idea of constitutional reform but rather attempted to balance the budget by reducing government salaries and dismissing civilian and military officials. But problems remained intractable and the latter took matters in hand. In June of 1932 they directed the first of what was to be a long series of coups specifically at the "ministers of the conservative royal government and not against the person of the king." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.26.


The 1932  coup was carried out by the "Peoples' Party,"  a secret group of "not more than 70 people" out of about 400 hundred in the government who had recently returned from being educated in the West, mainly in England.  These were of four groups: senior army officers, junior army officers, navy officers, and civilian officials.  All the senior officers had studied in Germany, while the younger army officers and civilians had been students in the early 20's in France.  The main leadership group was not more than 20 men.  The others involved were their immediate subordinates. Girling p.59. Other coups since then have followed the same pattern -- the "replacement of one oligarchy by another." Girling p.60.


The three main leaders of the coup dominated Thai politics into the 1950s: Colonel Phahon, at the time the highest ranking military commoner; Pridi Phanomyong, a brilliant French-educated lawyer and intellectual; and the subsequently important Major Phibun Songkram." Girling 1981 p.104-105.


Coup leaders promulgated a constitution with a three step approach to democracy.  1) The Peoples Party was to control government. 2) A People's assembly would be temporarily partly elected and partly appointed, and 3) there would be direct election to the Assembly whenever half of population had four years of schooling, but in not less than ten years in any case. Girling 1981 p.105.  Half of the members of the Assembly were elected by limited suffrage and half appointed by the government in power. The latter were expected to be dominated by the People's Party.  The Assembly was responsible for the budget and could override a royal veto.  Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.27.  The plotters, and the king, had considered and rejected a republican form of government, in large part because their feared that it would be dominated by the Chinese through their control over the economy.Girling 1981 p.56-59.  The first parliamentary elections were held in 1933.


In March 1935 king Prajahdipok abdicated without naming a successor, charging the Phahon government with abuse of power in curtailing the royal veto. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.27. His ten-year-old nephew was named to succeed him. The king was studying in Switzerland, however, and did not actually return until 1945. Pridi was named regent.


In the first government, from 1934 to 1938 prime minister Phahon had to maintain a balance between Pridi on the left and Phibun on the right. In this period, the government (with Pridi predominant) negotiated an end of foreign extraterritorial concessions, legalized press censorship, affirmed an earlier ban on communism, and prohibited the formation of political parties. It also quadrupled expenditures on education. Recognizing that ethnic Thai dominated agriculture and the bureaucracy, but were virtually absent from business and industry, the government also started subsidies for Thai to get into business, and placed heavy taxes on business that were foreign owned, the majority of which were Chinese.  Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.28. Christians and Muslims also suffered discrimination. There was a strong suggestion that only Buddhists could be patriots.


Phahon resigned as prime minister in December 1938, responding to shifting factional alignments in reaction to the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe and Asia leading to World War II and unable to contain the growing strength of the Thai militarist group headed by Phibun.  Phibun became the new prime minister, while Pridi became, temporarily, Finance minister, and Thailand became a militarist state (in a qualified way).


In 1941, Thailand signed a formal alliance with Japan, and declared war on the West (the Thai Ambassador to the U.S., however, refused to deliver the declaration and instead used the embassy to organize a Thai resistance in the United States; the United States refused to recognize Thailand's declaration of war). Japan arranged with the French Vichy government to return areas previously lost to France, and later returned areas which the British had taken (which Thailand again lost at the war's end). Internally, Phibun mounted a highly nationalistic propaganda campaign along fascist lines, prolonged the status of the government-appointed assemblymen  for a further ten years, and generally cooperated with the Japanese war effort. At the same time, however, Pridi (removed from the government but still in the office of regent for the absent king) organized a secret "Free Thai" resistance movement armed by the United States that numbered about 50,000 men by the war's end. Girling 1981 p.107.  Eventually public and elite opinion turned against Phibun and the Japanese presence. He was forced from office in June 1944, "and replaced by the first predominantly civilian government since the 1932 coup." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.30.


The period from 1944 to 1947 saw the emergence for the first time of party politics, and first full cycles of continuing alternation between parliamentary government and military oligarchies.  It also saw the formation of the peculiar role of the king in this system, as the spokesman or representative of the general good or the national will who can either convey or withhold legitimacy to such a change in regime.


There have been too many changes of government, and too many changes of constitutions (with too little effect) to describe each of them here.   Certain broad trends, however, stand out and affect the local development capability.  The chief among these is that by and large the periods of elected rule have become longer, participation in elections has become wider, parties have become more identifiable in terms of interests and policy priorities rather than just different groups seeking personal patronage, and one can see a slow downward shift of power from the top-most bureaucratic strata to a growing urban middle class consisting of ever-larger group of group of educated rank-and-file government employees, along with students, organized labor, and a growing group of Thai businessmen and merchants alongside the historically important Chinese.  Perhaps too, the power of the military has been somewhat diluted by increasing factionalism or increasing democratic sentiment among them.


On the other hand, rural interests have been are but dimly represented.  At the same time, government efforts to control or stimulate business in order to promote Thai involvement have also been clearly seen and understood as providing the means by which high officials in the dominant oligarchy have had themselves placed on the controlling bodies of large ventures, to be paid not for any actual service but simply for being in the government, and the attractiveness of these gains has providing important pressure in the opposite direction -- pressure to maintain oligarchic control of the government and government control of business rather than actually to be in business, to restrict or combat the growth of institutions of mass participation, to nullify the effect of the increasingly large educated middle class, and to retain bureaucratic control of the legislature rather than open the legislature to the public and give it real control over the bureaucracy.  


The January 1946 Constitution was promulgated with bicameral legislature. A Lower House (The House of Representatives) was elected by popular vote, and an upper house (Senate) was elected by the lower house. The main actual power lay with the cabinet, and in the cabinet with the prime minister, who retained control over both governmental appointments and the power to initiate legislation.  Most constitutions since then have had some variation on this theme, which the major differences being in whether the upper house was elected indirectly or appointed (most have been appointed by the prime minister, and appointees have mostly come from the military, and secondly the civilian bureaucracy), the relative numbers of each, and the relative voting strength of each.  No constitution has given a predominant legislative voice to the elected representatives, and none so far has required that the prime minister himself be directly elected or even an elected member of parliament, and for the most part they have not been. 


While the constitutions have been consistent in giving entire executive control of the government, as well as important powers to initiate legislation, to the Cabinet of Ministers (chaired by the prime minister), none has given either legislative house any control over the appointments to this Cabinet.  In this sense, effective control of the government has continued to lie in extra-constitutional procedures, although by custom the cabinet was required to resign en masse if the House of Representatives voted no confidence Shinn in LePoer. op. cit. p.191.  The cabinet which took office in 1986 contained no serving political or military officers, in an effort to "strengthen the political party system."Shinn in LePoer. op. cit. p.191, but active officials and military officers were common in previous cabinets.


It is not necessary to speculate why Thailand, for all the rest it has adopted from the west, has so far consistently refused to accept the concept of popular sovereignty. It is a Western concept which may or may not have parallels elsewhere.  It is important, however, to note that the Thai regimes have not been nearly as directive or oppressive from the point of view of the average Thai subject, particularly the average urban resident, as the power which the king and government have claimed might seem to imply.  By and large, Thailand operates much more by consensus than by force, and at least in the modern period Thais as individuals largely seem to feel that they make the major decisions in their lives according to their own preferences.  There have been five main reasons for this. The first three reasons are internal to the government itself, the other two pertain to he larger balance of forces in the constitution of Thai society. 


The first reason internal to government is that while the various governments have been more or less vehemently opposed the communist program for state control of economic activity  they have not attempted to substitute another view of what such control should be.  Rather they have favored a loose and eclectic mixture of policies, and more specifically a mixture of state, private, and mixed forms of productive an business enterprise, so that in large measure at any given time the great bulk of the population have been free to go about their productive activity on the basis of their individual perceived needs and through the mechanism of private contractual relationships (more important in cities) or customary forms of collective action (more important in rural areas).  The second is that despite the obvious willingness of high ranking officials to profit personally from business activities the governments have by and large not attempted to assert any consistent pattern of state control that would interfere substantially with the free play of competition as a means of promoting productive and market efficiency.  Being the beneficiaries of the profits, they were not inclined to impose policies to reduce them, and generally supported the development of the infrastructure necessary to make business effective -- but with a strong urban bias.  The third is that going along with the first two, Thailand was heavily involved with the United States effort's to combat the spread of communism in southeast Asia, while they lasted (through the mid-1970's).  In consequence the government received very substantial amounts of military assistance, technical assistance, and international support that has filled gaps in its balance of payments and helped redress internal problems that in other circumstances might have been fatal.


With respect to the larger composition of the society, the fourth reason is that none of this effects the Buddhist religious system, which the government consistently has supported and which in rural areas particularly acts as an important alternative channel of upward communication that the government hierarchy whose support the government has always wanted to maintain. The sangha necessarily has a broader demographic base than the government itself, and a much stronger rural base.  Full-time monks are more broadly recruited than government staff, and in addition it is the custom in Thailand that all men spend a few months to a few years as monks at some part of their lives. This is not to say the Buddhist community actively engages in political action or governmental criticism.  The mainstream of institutionalized Buddhism is explicitly concerned with accumulating merit and disavows concerns with politics,  and in recent years when leading monks have voiced political opinions they have been strongly conservative and sharply anti-communist.  But the sangha still constitutes a large body of people not directly under governmental control and not dependent on government support who could make a great deal of trouble for the government if they were moved to do so.  In addition, as the cases discussed here will illustrate, there have been a substantial minority of activist monks who have engaged in development work in rural areas, who have called attention to the problems of the poor as problems of the sangha and who have attractive national (indeed international) attention and respect.


The fifth reason that the system has not been seen as oppressive by most Thais most of the time is that the overall relationships among the buddhist religious order, the government, and the monarchy have so far not been subject to administrative manipulation.  The administration controls and can reshape the governmental system, but not the social constitution in this larger sense. And the need to maintain consensus across the whole array has acted as a restraint that somewhat redresses the absence of checks within the government itself. 


International linkages have also imposed both restraint and direction, the most important being the links to the United States and Thailand's role as both the figurative and literal center of resistance to communist expansion in Southeast Asia.  From 1950 to 1975 United States expenditures on non-military aid were 13.5 billion baht and military aid were 35.4 billion baht. By comparison Thai government defence expenditures over the same period were 63 billion. "During the same period, U. S. base and logistic construction alone amounted to more than 9 million baht." Girling 1981 p.96. As many and 14,000 Thai military personnel went through training under U.S. Military Assistance program Girling 1981 p.97.  Thai "volunteers" served with United States forces in Viet Nam, and in 1973 Thailand replaced Vietnam as the Headquarters for the United States Air Force in South East Asia, which made important contributions toward building up Thailand's air fields and its present substantial aircraft service industry.  In the 1960's a very large part of United States assistance went into strengthening the Thai police, to build them into a powerful counter-insurgency force -- which they were.  But of course in what is fundamentally a police state, it is very difficult to tell an "insurgent" from someone who is simply trying to organize something better, and as a rule, it seems, the police preferred to err on the side of caution, suppressing local voluntary organizations of all kinds that were not actually under government control (except Buddhist religious organizations), as well as expressions of dissent. 


Rural problems commanded little central attention in any case.  Thai governments, like those  in Korea, accepted the idea that development depended mainly on industrialization, and that industrialization depended on urbanization.  But Thailand started from a comparatively much stronger agricultural base, and exploited it much more directly, not only for manpower that might have been deemed surplus labor (although Thai history makes clear that historically it land that was plentiful and labor that was scarce) and not only for food to sustain an urban population, but for actual revenue to fund urban development. 


In 1950 a land rent control act was passed for central plain, but proved generally ineffective. Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.152.


In 1955  the government imposed its well known and much criticized export tax on rice-- the "rice premium." "The ultimate goal of this tax was to nurture Thailand's developing industries and to discourage rice production" by pricing rice out of world markets and creating a domestic surplus at reduced prices. This could then be bought by the government as a national rice reserve at artificially low prices and later sold. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.35. The tax accounted for 25 to 35  percent of the total value of exports. Although it was paid by exporter, it was necessarily passed on to farmer in the form of a lower farm price. It did not affect subsistence growers of glutinous rice in north, but did affect the growers of non-glutinous rices in central plain, which have consistently made up about 98 percent of the exports[5].


On the other hand, farmers did benefit from a long term government program to formalize land titles.  A Land code was promulgated in 1954. It established eight hectares as the maximum permissible holding except where the owner could manage a larger holding by himself. This limitation was generally ignored, however, even though the average holding is considerably below it (presently about 5.6 hectares nationally).  It was rescinded four years later. But the process of giving titles went ahead.  A title deed giving unrestricted power had to be applied for, and was made out only after a cadastral survey.  The main requirement was that the owner had to be in occupation and actually farming 75 percent of the land area claimed.  Issuance of title deeds proceeded slowly in early 50s, but quickened somewhat during the remainder of the decade.  By 1960 the total number of title deeds for agricultural land had reached 1 million, although there were 3.4 million agricultural households (including an unknown number of tenants's households).  The pressure for titles of various kinds increased during the 1960s and 1970s and the number of farm holdings expanded rapidly, as survey methods shifted to the use of aerial photography.  Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.148.  Still, in the 1980s  "..a substantial component of the nation's dominant smallholder group nevertheless lacked full title to the land it worked. By 1982 the total number of title deeds was 3.9 million. A 1976 estimate placed the proportion of farm holdings having formal title at about 60 percent." Cao LePoer. op. cit. p.148.


In 1961 the government began its first five-year economic development plan. This included systematic development of irrigation to provide regulated flow in central plain canals,which up to then had simply functioned as inundation canals. This included substantial World Bank financial assistance to build the large multipurpose Phumiphon Dam (completed in 1964) on the Mae Nam Ping and Sirikit Dam (completed 1973) on the Mae Nam Nan, in the Chao Phraya River basin of the central plain. Both have large reservoirs and both produce hydroelectric power. With subsequent projects, 1.3 million hectares now have controlled flow in the rainy season, and 450,000 hectares in the dry season Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.154.  Irrigation was more difficult and opportunities more restricted in northeast, but it was pursued there as well.


Going along with this, there was increased extension support and new technological inputs including mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides, improved seed, and improved marketing. These, and undoubtedly  also the disincentive of the rice premium, led  to a major expansion of non-rice crops, although the innovations tended to be highly localized. Girling 1981 p.66. The new crops included corn (four provinces) cassava (four), sugar cane (five).  Most of this was for export.  Rural incomes increased, and so did inequality of holdings and absentee ownership. Girling 1981 p.69.  Estimates from data "now becoming available" indicate that "full tenants and landless villagers comprise more than more than 30 percent of farm households.  Well over a quarter of the full tenants are renting from urban landlords.  The extent of landlessness and the growth of a large rural proletariat dependent on wage labor are new to Thailand." Girling 1981 p.70.


In 1967 the first pineapple cannery opened, and others quickly followed. Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.159. However a fruit shortage developed, which led canners to form their own plantations--some of several thousand hectares. These supplied about 40 percent of canned fruit in 1970. By early 1980s Thailand was one of the worlds largest exporters of pineapples, producing 1.6 million tons in 1984.Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.159.


Nevertheless in the 1960s and 1970s agricultural yields on established crops, particularly rice, remained static. Production kept up with population because land under cultivation doubled. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.46. But forests were rapidly being cut back and the limits of new land available were being reached.


  "Between 1950 and 1980, agricultural holdings nearly doubled to an estimated 22 million hectares, of which about three quarters were farmed annually, and much of the rapidly growing population was absorbed in the expansion.  By the early 1980s, however, most of the arable land had been occupied, except in the South, and continued growth of the agricultural sector became increasingly dependent on the acceptance of new technologies and the adoption of more intensive cultivation. Observers feared that without these changes growing domestic demand...would serous affect the nations balance of payments position .through the reduction of exportable surpluses of vital major foreign exchange earners, such as rice and sugar."Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.144.


There were urban rice shortages in the early 1970s. A drought in the 1972 planting season was followed by floods, and rice production was reduced by 10 percent and corn by 40 percent. Girling 1981 p.188. Because foreign demand for Thai products continued, domestic prices increased and rices price increased.  Government bungling led to the disappearance of subsidized rice, and in 1973, for the first time, Thais had to line up to buy rice.  There was simultaneous inflation and recession. Caught between rising prices and static wages, urban workers engaged in strikes and were met by lockouts -- which were followed by drops in investment and ultimately a ban on strikes.


Opposition to the regime rose strongly while this was happening, stimulated in part by students who formed a new nationwide network (National Student Center of Thailand). Girling 1981 p.115. There were demonstrations in October 1973 (referred to commonly as the "October Revolution"), and armed repression including firing on unarmed demonstrators. The king dissociated himself from the violence, and the army command (now under General Krit Sivara) refused to obey the government's orders.  The government fell, and the leadership went into exile.  Girling 1981 p.116. The charge to new government included writing a new constitution. Seekins LePoer. op. cit. p.44.


Under pressure from their own rural problems as well as rising oil prices and the events surrounding the Viet Nam War, the two civilian governments which held power from 1974 to 1976 devoted more attention to rural concerns, but the efforts came to little. The minimum wage was doubled, but severe labor unrest continued, along with student activism including advising labor unions, "going to the countryside," and staging urban demonstrations. And in the countryside, there were the start of peasant organizations.


The government developed an agricultural price support scheme, proposed to transfer 5 percent of bank deposits as loans to farmers, and most dramatically, proposed to hand out of 2.5 billion baht ($ 125 million), increased in 1976 to 3.4 billion, to be shared equally among the 5,000 rural commune (tambon) councils." Girling 1981 p.p203. But the programs were incompletely thought out and poorly executed. Land reform did not work because of the still imperfect mechanisms for showing and transferring title. The credit scheme failed because nothing was done to compensate for the fact that the poorest farmers were least credit worthy, the  price support scheme was undermined by urban interests and poor planning, and the government grants to the communes foundered on the problem that the tambons themselves were entities made up by the government of disparate villages which usually had no real unity and no internal cohesively that would allow expenditures to be made under social controls to assure local accountability and cooperation.  The tambon chiefs were elected by the village chiefs, who were elected by the villages.  In consequence the money was commonly dispersed along patronage networks that ended in units too small to use the funds economically.  There were also charges of using the money for vote buying and simple misapplication. Dirt roads that were soon washed away by rain, excessive administrative expenses, and overpriced construction material were three of the main charges. Girling 1981 p.204.


From mid 1974 to mid-1975 many officials of the nascent peasant organization, the Farmer's Federation of Thailand, which with student support had been championing the cause of tenant farmers (especially in the North) and urging the implementation of land reforms and rent regulation were "assassinated by unknown killers."  By 1976 the organization had all but disappeared. Girling 1981 p.204.


In 1975 the Agricultural Land Reform Act passed over strong opposition. This called for the formation of an Agricultural Land Reform Office in Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives as implementing agency. Under it, up to 8 hectares was to be made available to each tenant or landless farmer, to be paid for in long term installments.  The land to come from reserve forests and crown land and from purchase from private owners, who were required to make available for sale to the government all land over the 8 hectare limit.  They would be paid 25 percent cash and the rest in government bonds.  But implementation slowed after October coup, and the goals were changed.  By 1979, land redistribution was substantially forgotten, and concern had shifted to the less controversial problem of improving the living conditions of forest squatters.  Cao in LePoer. op. cit. p.152. Several commentators have remarked that the land reform program had virtually no farmer participation at the province level and below, no local level farmer organization to support it, and very little genuine governmental push from above.[6]


In 1975, as had earlier been predicted, the internal Thai rice price and the world price had come together, because of increasing world production as well as rising domestic demand.  Thus the retention of the rice premium would necessarily depress exports. Nevertheless, it was retained. In this year the government derived more than US $40 million from it which they said was earmarked for agricultural development schemes as a form of income distribution." Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.46.  But effect on rice producers in the central plain was still adverse.  If a person has an economically marginal farm growing rice in an inundation area where virtually everyone around him also grows rice, there are in fact almost no crops he can actually shift to. The limitations are agronomic, not economic.  Thus instead of taking the land out of rice, the policy took farmers out of the land. The urban population exploded, with a corresponding deterioration of living conditions and an increase of problems such as unemployment, crime and prostitution.


At the same time, the international political climate changed again with the ending of United States involvement in Viet Nam.  In 1975-76, U.S. troops were withdrawn from Thailand, and many in the government and the ruling elite feared the consequences of increased Chinese and Vietnamese Communist influence in the region. In July 1975 the Thai government established diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China. Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.45. In October 1976 a Military Coup was engineered by two generals who had previously been ousted, who established a "National Administrative Reform Council."  But neither of the two leaders took the prime ministership themselves. Rather, they appointed a retired supreme court judge, who was a person of unquestioned integrity and competence, but also a zealous anti-communist.   "There was repression of the left and harassment of the center... all in the name of "national security."  The general public remained apathetic, however, apparently acquiescing in authority and approving stability.  As for the opposition, hundreds fled abroad, went underground, or rallied to the communist revolution..." Girling 1981 p.117.  Finally, however, the military themselves lost patience and executed yet another coup--the last until 1990.  General Kriangsak, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, became prime minister, eased press censorship, established better relations with labor unions, and gave amnesty to student leaders previously arrested.  He outmaneuvered rivals in drafting a new constitution and in making appointments.  The external threats of Communist China and Vietnam had, in the meantime, been reduced by their conflict with each other.


The constitution which General Kriansak promulgated on December 22, 1978 was the 12th since 1932. It was still in effect through 1991. It had weathered elections in 1979, 1983, 1986, and 1988, and coup attempts in 1981 and 1983.  The legislature has the usual two houses, lower elected and upper appointed, and an appointed cabinet, headed by the prime minister.  The constitution was explicit that neither the prime minister nor the cabinet is required to come from the legislature.  The presumption was, on the contrary, that they were more likely to come from the administration.  The cabinet can initiate most legislation and has control of appointments, but the only the lower house can initiate budget bills. The 1988 elections were called when the king dissolved the parliament at the request of the sitting prime minister,  in response to popular discontent.  When the prime minister was once again asked to head the resulting coalition, he refused in response to the popular demand that the prime minister be elected (he was not). The coalition then chose the deputy prime minister, who was Thailand's first elected prime minister in twelve years. LePoer. op. cit. p.xxvii-xxviii.


The recent coups and repressions of dissent make clear that the pattern of alternating constitutional and military governments is not broken, nor has the underlying relationship between king, military, and parliament been changed, nor has the even deeper relationship between the underlying oligarchical system and the constituted forms of government.  Basically, Thailand is a highly centralized state run by bureaucrats with a view toward business and industrial growth, focussed on Bangkok. The agricultural base of the system is historically strong but usually neglected, and sometime actually exploited.


Local Government:


Local government offices down to the district level including police, labor department, and social welfare department are  under the Interior Ministry. From 1966 to 1980 primary education also was. Levels of government are National, Province (jang-wat or changwat), district (amphoe).  Some districts are further divided into subdistricts (king amphoe). Districts or sub-districts are broken down into communes or precincts, tambons, each headed by a kamnana. Tambons are broken down into villages, ban, or muban, each headed by phuyai-ban.


In 1981, there were 72 provinces. As of 1987, there were 73 provinces, 642 amphoe, 78 king amphoe, 7,236 tambon, 55,746 muban, 123 municipalities (tesaban) and 729 sanitation districts. Shinn in LePoer. op. cit. p.195.


The provincial governor is assisted by one or more deputy governors and officials from the central ministries. This appears to be lowest level with the ministerial offices.


The District Officer is appointed by Minister of Interior and reports to the governor. He is at once the chief magistrate, tax collector, and administrator.  "The district or the subdistrict was usually the only point of contact between the central authority and the populace; the central government had no appointed civil service officer below this level." Shinn in LePoer. op. cit. p.195.


The commune headman is not a regular government official, but is confirmed by the provincial governor, entitled to wear an official uniform and receive a monthly stipend. The commune is an administrative grouping of about nine contiguous villages (ban). The headman is elected by the village headmen from among themselves.  He is assisted by small locally recruited staff. Shinn in LePoer. op. cit. p.195.


Below the commune is the village.


Rural life/Village organization:


Stereotypically, villages throughout Thailand consist of clusters of households farming land individually, who have a common identity and communal property, and who have their own temple (wat) and their own school. Tuchrello in LePoer. op. cit. p.84.  More precisely, villages in the north, northeast, and mountains are commonly nucleated, geographically separate, and with open spaces in between them. Some of this is government land and some of which is common land, which the villagers manage collectively. But in the central region households are spread out along the canals or roads in little clumps, often one or two but more at canal junctures or places where canals are crossed by roads. There are no open spaces or other demarcations between villages, and the common land has usually long since been privately claimed, if it ever existed.  There are, of course, wats and schools. But there is little sense of distinct village-by-village social identities. Rather, people see themselves in terms of an ongoing system of relative social and physical proximity.


Formal village government is simple. "Each village elected a headman, who generally served as the middleman between villagers and the district administration. The headman's other duties included attending meetings at the district headquarters, keeping village records, arbitrating minor civil disputes, and serving as village peace officer.  Generally the headman served five years or longer and received a monthly stipend. In the 1980s, the importance of a village headman seemed to be declining as the authority of the central government expanded steadily through the provincial and local administrations." Shinn in LePoer. op. cit. p.196.


The Wat continued to be important in 80's but had lost its function as educational institution.  "Most rural communities build and maintained a wat because, as Potter states, the Thai consider it "necessary for a civilized existence." The wat included the special quarters and facilities reserved for monks, a building for public worship and religious ceremony, and a community meeting place.  Typically the wat, which may be supported by more than one village, was run by a temple committee that consisted of prominent laymen as well as monks who had left the sangha without prejudice.  Abbots and senior monks often enjoyed considerable prestige.  In times of personal crisis, people often sought their advice." Tucherello in LePoer. op. cit. p.85.  The wat is primarily a ceremonial center. Many of the rites are for community as a whole, even though aim is "the acquisition of merit by individuals." Tucherello in LePoer. op. cit. p.86.


Temple committee often administered a loan fund from which poor might borrow in emergencies. Tucherello in LePoer. op. cit. p.86.


Larger villages are commonly divided, for convenience, by their headmen into geographical neighborhoods with roughly equal numbers of households, usually by streets (khum in the northeast, muad in the north[7]).  Such neighborhoods commonly elect their own headmen, and among things take turns making collections of food for the monks of the wat.


The pattern of marriage residence is matrilocal, and the household form is what anthropologists sometimes call a "matrilocal stem." This means the son-in-law comes to the daughters (his wife's) house, and joined her father in their farm or business. Later, he  might move out to set up new house nearby.  But the family of youngest daughter would stay with her parents to take care of them, and ultimately to inherent their house and business or lands. Tucherello in LePoer. op. cit. p.86.  Such residence is sequential. That is, for example, a second daughter would marry and bring here husband in as the eldest daughter with her husband would leave to set up their own house. Shigetomi 1992 p.158.This cycle has begun to break up in recent decades, apparently in response to the increasing shortage of land and perhaps simply changing preferences. If the new houses can be located near the parents, they usually are; but sometimes they are not.


Within a village, there is no system of compulsory labor obligation. Everything is voluntary, usually ordered by the individual beneficiaries or, for matters concerning the whole village, by consensus. As the cases here indicate, consensus can be organized by just about anyone, although the elected headman or local religious leader normally takes the initiative.  


Anthropologists and other observers commonly comment two distinct aspects of Thai rural life: "loose" social organization and an abundance of ghosts, guardian spirits, and other such beings which Thai villagers seem to pay attention to in daily private usage and in public ceremonies. The two points actually are related; the guardian spirits and ghosts providing an informal but effective was of organizing collective behaviors and threatening non-conformers with sanctions without have to specify fixed or formal sanctioning authorities.  


Each village has a guardian spirit and a "lak ban, [or] foundation pillar possessing spiritual powers protecting the village." Shigetomi 1992 p. 164. Some villages "enshrine a statue of Buddha inside their foundation pillar." Shigetomi 1992 p.164. -- indicating that they see the guardian spirit ideas as consistent with Buddhism.  Each household, too, has a guardian spirit, in the form of a small house on a pedestal in a corner of the property.  Both village and household guardian spirits are the objects of regular calendrical ceremonies and occasional ceremonies[8].  There are  also an indefinitely large number of guardian spirits inhabiting the forest, individual trees, streams, fields, and other objects. Guardian spirits can be vengeful, and if wronged may take out their anger not only on the individual that did the wrong but the community that the person comes from, which is to say that they represent, in a  form at once clear and unarguable, the idea of collective responsibility and collective involvement.  As Shin'ichi Shigetomi puts it discussing the adverse reaction to a villager who took it upon himself to cut down a tree in which a guardian spirit lived: "One villager's irreverent act is not just the problem of that one individual; it is the village's communal problem."Shigetomi p. 164.


Of course for such ideas to have real force there must be some clear and accepted mechanism to connect the individual to the community in this context, and Shigetomi goes on to describe it:


" For this reason the villagers have to clearly delineate the people who belong to their membership and who can expect the rights and perform the duties associated with their guardian spirit.  Therefore when a new resident comes in through birth, marriage, or migration, a medium (cham), a villager with powers to communicate with the guardian spirit, informs the spirit of the new resident's name and asks that its divine protection be extended to the newcomer. Once this divine protection has been extended, it is believed that this protection continues even outside the village."ibid. 


Logically any ceremony wherein a group of people presents a person for recognition as one of them necessarily also marks each of the presenters as part of the same group at the same time, and says that they have mutual relations to each other with respect to that membership. If you seek admission to my group and your action in that capacity can injure me, then you must grant me some right to control your action, just as I, in sponsoring your admission, give you the power to injure me and the right to control my action which might injure you.


Although it may not immediately seem to be related, the labor exchange system is, or at least was, another effective mechanism for sanctioning conformance to local consensus.  Its power derives directly from the relative abundance of land and the relative shortage of labor, so that a villager's productive power, no less than a king's, depended on the labor he could command from others. If you get less assistance from others in key operations at peak labor demand periods, you have less rice.  Observers universally agree that the system has tended to break down as land has become scarce, and as types of landholding relationships have multiplied, with increasing tenancy, absentee ownership, and the like. By the same token, it has broken down more in the central plain than the outlying regions. Historically, the  basic idea was to exchange of equal units of labor (not money for labor or food for labor). Exchange continues under the present conditions, but it is now mixed with paid labor Tucherello in LePoer. op. cit. p.87.. 


There are, in different parts of the country, two main formal types of labor exchange. One,  au raeng or au mu is "quite strict in maintaining equality in the amount of labor reciprocated, and was common in northern and central Thailand.  The other category is not very concerned with maintain a balance in labor exchange. One example is kho raeng, a form of cooperative labor that is used in areas of daily life such as when a village builds or renovates his house; another is long khaek used in the Northeast for farm work....such labor exchange is limited to people in households with whom a villager maintains good human relationships and becomes possible only upon the willingness of a villager to volunteer his help." Shigetomi p. 159.  That is, there is no immediate benefit that can be given or withheld in exchange, or other such direct enforcement mechanism.


In addition to labor exchange, villages in Northern Thailand have historically cooperated in building, maintaining, and operating small irrigation systems. "Frequently the rights and duties of the members of these organizations have been codified and clearly stipulated, and the punishment of offenders is strictly enforced." Shigetomi 1992 p.160.


Beginning in the 1970's the government has attempted to encourage the formation of cooperatives of various kinds. Shigetomi argues that these have been more successful in the less commercialized areas of the north and northeast than in the economically more advanced central plain, precisely because the more recent and less complete introduction of market economics in those areas has not yet led to the decline of the historic patterns of social mobilization and labor exchange.


  "Particularly in the Northeast and in Northern Thailand the village has come to possess the communal resources required for economic activities, and the village has taken on the responsibility of managing many of the newly organized cooperative activities that use these communal resources.  Moreover...the villages in these two regions traditionally have had the function of eliciting the cooperative behavior of their members.  This function has been transferred over tot he new village level communal activities which has allowed the management of these new activities to take place smoothly.  In this way the village is being transformed into a territorial organization which has the essential economic function of directing the benefits from these activities toward improving the welfare of all the members of the village.

            However, the villages in central Thailand generally no longer have the same traditional character that is still common to the village in the North and Northeast.  As a result they have found it difficult to turn the impact of the market economy toward strengthening the cohesion of the village.  For this reason village level communal activities of the sort discussed in this study are not common in central Thailand." Shigetomi 1992 156-157.




Thailand has a highly centralized government, and from time to time has in fact been a military dictatorship.  But it is not a totalitarian society, for three reasons.  First, the state, meaning the government, is just one of the dominant national institutions, and is not in control of the others. Thus force has not been able to replace informal consensus as a basis for collective action in the ruling elite, and Thai military governments have therefore been more responsive, broader based, and less capable of becoming dynastic than is usual in similar systems elsewhere -- such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is still more strongly true for civilian governments.  Second, Thailand's long standing commitment to free economic markets and rich development of market institutions outside effective government control limits the area in which direct state power can be exercised to limit individual choice.  And third, because government by and large does not reach to the village level, where most people still live, in any case or control where they live, or what work they do, or who they associate with, except in the limited (but important) sense that the government's long standing anti-communism has clearly inhibited the formation of non-governmental voluntary associations. By the same token, however, the present form of government cannot in any obvious way be given credit for the strong core of Thailand's growth, which has depended on agriculture and agricultural institutions (including market and trading institutions) that predate the government and which the government has on balance probably equally supported and hindered.

    [1] Girling, John S. 1981. Thailand Society and Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p.139.

    [2] Wyatt, David K. Thailand, a Short History. New Haven: Yale University Press. p.73.

    [3] Seekins in LePoer. op. cit. p.15.

    [4] This is true whether measured in terms of output per unit of labor, output in relation to inputs such as fertilizer, or output in relation to cost. Thailand has been distinctive among major modern rice producers in being able to maintain a competitive position as a major rice producer and exporter while not relying on the high capitalization and high cost path of production represented by high-yielding varieties.  See Barker,R. and R. W. Herdt. 1984. The Rice Economy of Asia. Resources for the Future.

    [5] Girling 1981 op. cit.  p.65.

    [6] Girling 1981 p.71 and Sein Lin and Bruce Esposito, "Agrarian Reform in Thailand: Problems and Prospects" Pacific Affairs 49:3:425-442. 

    [7] Shigetomi, Shin'ichi, personal communication.

    [8] This needs a qualification. While there are so many guardian spirits that it would be difficult to get Thais to systematically deny having any particular one, Shin'ichi Shigetomi says (personal communication) that while household shrines are common in the central plain (which I have seen), the village pillars are very rare. In the northeast the pattern is the opposite: village pillars are common but household shrines are rare. In the north, both are common.