1970s peasant revolts in Thailand

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Thai Field Worker

Thailand witnessed several uprisings by farmers from several central Thai provinces in the mid-1970s. Thailand transiting into a democratic government from nearly forty years of dictatorship was besieged by revolutions involving several segments of the population. Farmers were one of several politicized groups that rioted on the streets. They implored for the Thai Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn to reduce their debt and to ensure for a fair rice price. These appeals were eventually ignored; with the Prime Minister refusing to meet the farmers. In their desperation, the farmers tried to enact change by themselves. Unafraid of creditors and other capitalists, they hoped for a change which would free them from oppression. They announced their intention to cease paying taxes and refused to recognise the authority of the Thai state leadership. By setting up an autonomous liberated zone, the farmers yearned for greater freedom and ability to regulate rice crop prices in order to sustain themselves better.

The aims of the farmer’s revolt were to be recognised for their contributions and subsequently to be treated with equal stature as their landlords. From the revolt, the Farmers’ Federation of Thailand (FFT) which was a national, autonomous Thai Farmers’ organisation emerged. The FFT led the struggle in northern Thailand to pass a law which standardized and lowered the level of rent on rice land known as the Land Rent Control Act (LRCA) in December 1974.[1] What followed in the wake of 14 October 1973 movement was mass protests by these farmers and their allies such as students and the professional classes whom challenged the ruling elite to improve the lives of these farmers.[1] The revolt filled some of the landowners and state officials with much anxiety. In response, these activists were harassed and worse were to follow. Between March 1974 and September 1979, twenty one of the FTT leaders were assassinated with the killings particularly concentrated in the Chiang Mai region.[2] The assassination of FTT leaders created an environment of pervasive fear in the countryside and ended the futile revolutionary efforts of the FTT leaders.

Social & Economic situation[edit]

Rice fields in Chiang Mai Province
How easy to thresh from these stalks a stream of grain. Who but the farmer knows all the hardships involved? Drops of sweat, who cares to count how many,

But drop by drop I can count every one of my worries. How many bulging sinews of mine, Tear up from the earth what you put in your mouth?

Jit Phumisak, [3]

The main issue in contemporary Thai society concerns rural poverty and regional underdevelopment, which witnessed a sharp growth of its cities and along with it, a growing urban middle class which prospered tremendously.[4] Comprising up to 78 percent of Thailand’s total labour force, the peasants formed the largest occupational group in Thailand, making them the backbone of the nation.[5] Agriculture output which was mainly rice, accounted for nearly 30% of Thailand's Gross Domestic Product.[6] However the producers of these commodities were not among the principal beneficiaries.These farmers depended on rice sales to survive. To better protect themselves, they organised themselves and formed a national level coalition of a group of rural farmers against exploitative market conditions. Though the farmers vainly attempted to defend their source of income, their efforts were systematically frustrated by the government authorities whom were in collusion with landlords and others whom had vested interests in ensuring this rice prices remained high.[4] In the 1970s a Thai Farmer’s average per capita income was only $49.In contrast the average national per capita income was at $125 and those of urban residents stood at $428.[7]

The Growing per capita income gap between of farmers and city dwellers in Thailand[edit]

Year Per Capita income of farmers (in Baht)(A) Per Capita income of city dwellers (in Baht)(B) A/B (%)
1960 1,044 6,434 16.2
1970 1,310 8,618 15.2
1975 1,433 10,061 14.2
1980 1,525 12,964 11.8
1985 1,724 15,110 11.4

Source: News report in Prachtnippatai, July 23, 1974.quoted from Akira Takahashi, "Thailand: Growing Land Problems," in Z. M. Ahmadi, ed., Land Reform in Asia, Geneva, 1976, p. 118.[4]

Thailand was not suffering from a population surge found in most third world nations. The productivity of its soil along with its external environment combined with an non-existent political culture, which were based on the tenets of respect and love for a hereditary monarchy had the effect of creating a political passivity amongst Thailand’s rural population.[5] However several policy changes enacted by the government had an adverse effect in rural Thailand, particularly during the period of open politics from 1973-1976. The combination of a sudden surge in Thailand's population along with the increasing scarcity of arable land led to increasing political and social conflicts.[5] Invariably, tenancy and debts increased amongst the farmers especially in the areas in the North and Central plains. Though there was increased interaction amongst the farmers and government officials due to improved infrastructure and the increasing presence of the government in the countryside, the nature of these interactions were viewed in negative light. The farmers were often distrustful and over a period of time finally reached their breaking point. These farmers decided to undertake forceful political action to make their grievances known to the government. In an era of open politics, there were instances of petitions against land rents, farmer demonstrations leading to the emergence of an effective Farmer Federation of Thailand (FFT). The FFT frequently clashed with the ruling elite in its attempt to improve the lives of the Thai farmers.[5]

Rice production policies[edit]

Rice farmers transplanting rice out into the paddy, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand

Rice is an important economic and cultural symbol in Thailand. It occupies approximately 55% of Thailand's arable land and is the staple food across all income brackets.[8] Thailand in the 1970s invested considerably to increase its rice production output such as in infrastructure improvements, increased agriculture research efforts and expanded its road networks.[8] The use of technology combined with advanced knowledge in rice strains, fertilisers along with specific government policies increased rice production. From the 1950s to 1970’s rice production per unit of land increased by almost 50 percent.[9] The government intended to accelerate growth in the urban areas and one of its methods was to tax the rice industry and use the profits to fund the much needed projects in the larger cities. The Thai authorities levied taxes on rice exports known as “rice premium”. This increased tax revenue while at the same time decreased the price of rice domestically. The government in enacting its policy, shifted from protecting the farmers and left the rice industry to market forces thereby not controlling the rice prices, leading to unethical profit maximizing measures at all costs leaving these farmers vulnerable.[5]

Though technology has greatly improved the production of rice, it has not translated into an outright success for the peasants. Escalating prices left many farmers unable to hold on to their lands and subsequently they had to become tenants to sustain themselves. Despite the uncertainty in the Thai economy, the government was not concerned with its citizen's plights. Tax revenues were collected irrespective even if it was a bad year, which drove the farmer's income margins thinner. The introduction of new technology meant the entrance prices of rice farming were much higher leaving most of the peasant farmers unable to own their land outright. The larger farming operations due to their greater financial ability were able to meet the rising costs of these new technologies and be able to purchase items such as fertiliser, rice strains and machinery without much problem. The average farmer though had to endure a living as a manual labourer on a farm earning barely enough to feed himself and his family .[9]

Problems of tenancy and rural debt[edit]

The construction of all of these new infrastructures was initiated by the bureaucratic elite in Bangkok rather than by the villagers. In this manner, several high-ranking officials received some form of kickbacks making corruption prevalent. While the government sought to implement measures to improve agriculture output, these projects in general did relatively little to improve the farmers lives. Instead, several portions of the agricultural sector were plagued by the growing issues of indebtness and land shortages. The country's total agricultural debt was estimated at 143 Million baht with the bulk of these debts at approximately 78% found in Chiang Mai and the central plains of Thailand.[10] Though debts in these rural areas were around as early as the 1930s, farmers during this period still owned their lands outright and tenant farmers and absentee landlords were non-existent. A survey conducted by the National Statistical Office found that 40% of farmers were renting out part or all of their land they farmed in the Central Plains. In Chiang Mai and other northern regions, up to 18% of farmers were tenants whereas in other areas of Thailand, the figures were comparatively lower.[5] Eight years later, another study was conducted which found 56 percent of farmers in the central plains rented some of the lands they tilled while 27 percent did not own any land at all. In a decade, the rate of tenancy in the central area more than doubled with only approximately 17 percent of farmers fully independent of any landlords. The report also found that 4 in every 5 farming families were in debt at an accumulated amount of 16 Billion Baht. The average farm family debt was at $200 compared to an average family income earning less than $300 a year. Some of the families were living on $25 or less a year.[5] A number of significant factors contributed to the higher rates of tenancy, rural indebtness and land rent in the north and central plains. It was found that the land holdings in the North were smaller than any other region of the country reducing its efficiency. Farming was done on a much smaller scale which combined with lower productivity yielded low incomes.

Population growth in Thailand[edit]

As the rural economy started to evolve with higher standards of living, farmers saw their incomes gradually shrink. Smaller scaled farming operations had to borrow from money lenders whom were usually middleman involved in the rice trade or as owners of rice mills. The loans that were extended had to be repaid with higher interest rates.[11] The problems of land fragmentation and subdivision also contributed to the problems in the north. A report submitted by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) found that subdivision of land holdings was growing rapidly in Thailand. Subdivision occurred mostly after inheritance. Rapid increases in Thailand’s population aggravated this particular problem.

1850 1911 1943 1958 1967 1973 1978
Population in millions 4 8 16 24 32 40 47

Source: Compiled from National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), Bangkok.[4]

Relations between farmers and landlords[edit]

To further aggravate the situation, these illiterate farmers were often cheated. Certain years when harvests had been low, the farmers had no choice but to mortgage their land as collateral to obtain a loan. Reports accounted that the money lenders simply added interest amounts to the loans casually. Should the farmer failed to repay their loans, he would have to forfeit his land. Such cheating cases even though they were not unusual meant should the farmers had a bad run with poor harvests and combined with the high interest rates would see them lose ownership of their lands. Farmers in the central and northern plains have suffered from severe debts since the 1930s and by the 1970s, most of the farmers had lost their land to the landlords and their creditors. The government never sought to resolve this problem as the Thai farmers did not apply any political pressure. These farmers were seen as unorganised, scattered and they have been traditionally political apathetic, accepting their misfortune and poverty as their way of life. This all changed in 1973, when the farmers decided to take matters into their own hands and sought to change their lives.[5]

The political mobilization of farmers after 1973[edit]

1973 was a watershed year for Thai politics. The government transited from a military ruled junta to a moderately ruled civilian government.This accounted for the political mobilisation and participation of various segments of society in the democratisation process of the country. Social discontent and the urgent needs of the oppressed classes which had been subjugated to authoritarian rule, were thrust into the forefront and these issues were openly articulated. Labour disputes were suddenly discussed with great vigour.[4] Students and the other professional classes such as teachers and lawyers fearful for their own long-term political survival decided to join these farmers and air their grievances. Using the grievances accumulated from years of neglect, these students activists convinced these farmers to organise themselves into a political body in order to pressure the government to act on their behalf. During the period between 1973 and 1974, farmers took to the streets and protested against local district officers and other officials.

The tenant farmers in the North and Central plains were particularly demonstrative and student activists helped to organise several complaints against land owners concerning land mortgages and unfair land rents and also against local officials for corruption.[5] Thousands of famers marched to the Prime Minister’s office in Bangkok to demand for the return of their lands from the landlords, middlemen and creditors. The demonstrations signified the farmer’s will and determination to implement a policy which will change the landscapes of an agricultural sector after years of abuse and neglect by the Thai authorities. In March 1974, the farmers supported from the NSCT (National Students Council of Thailand) staged their first large-scale protest, gaining nationwide attention for their demands to increase rice prices. During the months of August to November 1974, land disputes were widespread and discontent was aired.[4] Newspaper reports reported that approximately 7,000 odd farmers from 8 different provinces threatened the government they would relinquish their citizen identification cards and go about setting up “a liberated area” unless the government met their demands.[12] On 19th November, the assembled representatives in Bangkok declared the formation of the Farmers’ Federation of Thailand (FFT) which handed to the government a list of demands. The government ceded to some of the demands of the FFT albeit slowly. A few “half-hearted” agrarian laws were passed such as the seed certification law, a land rental law and a moderate land reform law. The FFT clamoured for Land Rent Control Act (LRCA) to be ratified and its laws to be made applicable to the whole country which was finally enacted in December 1974.

The 1974 act was more extensive and differed from the 1950 act in terms of application, rates and terms of rent and terms of enforcement. The 1974 act stipulated for establishment of provincial and district committees to oversee the implementation and administration and also to mediate any potential conflicts between tenants and farmers. The appointments of these officers on these committees were to be selected from the sub-districts where there was land tenancy. By involving farmers directly in the administration of the law, these farmers were to be entitled to a fair hearing from their fellow farmers rather than on previous occasions where there were no farmers on these committees. The 1974 act also established the need for the quality of the land and the harvests garnered before determining the final rental amount as opposed to the 1950s act which stipulated rental amounts of 5 – 25% of the harvest irrespective of other factors such as poor harvests and land quality. For the northern farmer’s point of view, the creation of this act brought about welcome relief from the high rent prices dating back to the 1950s.[1]

Assassinations of FTT Leaders[edit]

The three years between 14 October 1973 and 6 October 1976 was a tumultuous period filled with political possibilities and change in Thailand. Those groups, whose political action was restricted under the dictatorship such as the students and farmers, organised and protested in unprecedented numbers. Thais from all walks of life transcended class and social status to challenge the injustices of the government. Throughout 1975 and 1976, students, journalists, socialists, employees and farmers were subject to growing harassment, intimidation, threats and finally assassinations. From March 1974 through August 1975, approximately twenty-one FFT leaders were killed under the guise of individual acts of political terrorism.[1] It was speculated that these murders were conducted as part of an organised plan of political intimidation. All those whom were murdered were active FFT members and its killings took place within a short span of time. In many instances, the murders pointed to the work of a highly professional assassin and not some random murder by an angry villager motivated by revenge.

Assassinations of Members and Leaders of the Farmers Federation of Thailand[edit]

Sculpture of 6 October 1976 Memorial found in Thammasat University
Name Farmers Federation of Thailand Position Province Date Assassinated
Suit Sridej Representative to executive committee Phitsanulok March 31, 1974
Mrs Bunting Sirak Member (Ordinary villager) Phitsanulok October 1974
Boonma Somprasith Provincial committee member Ang Thong February 1975
Hieng Sinmak Representative to executive committee Lamphun April 6, 1975
Aye Thongtoe Representative to executive committee Lamphun April 13, 1975
Ngoen Larwong District committee member Udorn April 21, 1975
Mongkol Suknoon Leader, Provincial Branch Phichit May 1975
Tawil (last name not reported) Member (ordinary member) Phichit May 1975
Tawil Mungtunya Representative to executive committee Korat May 26, 1975
Charoen Songnark District committee member Korat May 26, 1975
Jar Jakrawan Leader, District Branch Chiang Mai June 13, 1975
Put Ponglung-ga Information not available Information not available June 22, 1975
Keo Pongchakum Information not available Information not available June 22, 1975
Prasert Chomamarit Leader, district branch Chiang Mai July 3, 1975
Som Jandeng Leader, district branch Chiang Mai July 1975
Amnuay (last name not reported) Leader, District Branch Chiang Mai July, 1975
Klieng Mai-iem Deputy leader, district branch Lamphang July 20, 1975
Metta (last name not reported) Representative to executive committee Chonburi July, 1975
Prasart Srimuang Representative to executive committee Surin July 8, 1975
Intha Sribunruang Vice President, FFT; president; northern branch; leader, provincial branch Chiang Mai August 1975
Sawat Tadawan Leader, District Branch Chiang Mai August 1975

Source: David Morell: Political Conflict in Thailand: Reform, Reaction, Revolution.[5]

As shown in the list, much of the early assassinations were ordinary members of the FFT. As the killings continued, top leaders such as Intha became targets of the attack. These killings were a clear warning to the FFT leaders to cease their activities if they wished to remain alive. The murder campaigns ultimately derailed the FFT campaign. The organisation ceased growing and diminished as an important party in the political arena. By 1976, the party was seldom heard again. The FFT had a small group of important individuals whom were experienced and familiar with the complexities of the Land Control Act. With their murders and others afraid for their lives, the FFT virtually collapsed.[1]

Thirty years later, various issues surrounding this period of political possibility, the imagination of a different and fair future for the ordinary people of Thai society and the demise of it all remains unresolved and understudied. Thongchai Winichakul a prominent South East Asian scholar argues that the massacre that took place at Thammasat University and the assassinations of the Thai farmers is an event that continues to be shrouded in silence and ambiguity for those whom survived the event and also for those in present-day Thai society.[13]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Haberkorn, Tyrell (2011). Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books. p. 3. 
  2. ^ Zimmerman, Robert F. (1978). "Reflections on the collapse of Democracy in Thailand". Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 58. 
  3. ^ Phumisak, Jit (1974). Collected Works (Ruam Botkawi lae nganwichan silpawannakhadi) (in Thai). Thailand: Chiang Mai University Student Front. p. 8. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Luther, Hans U. (December 1978). "Peasants and State in Contemporary Thailand". International Journal of Politics, 8, (4,): 1–120. Retrieved 20 October 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Morell, David (1981). Political Conflict in Thailand: Reform, Reaction, Revolution. Germany: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, Publishers Inc. pp. 205–233. 
  6. ^ "Yearbook". Far Eastern Economic Review: 306. 1976. 
  7. ^ Suntravanich, Chalong (1975). "Thailand's Peasant Situation". Journal of Thai Students in Australia (3). 
  8. ^ a b International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). "Rice in Thailand". Retrieved 20 October 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Phongpaichit,, Pasuk (1995). Thailand, Economy and Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. 
  10. ^ Zimmerman, Carl; Andrews, James (1931). "Bangkok Times Press". Siam: Rural Economic Survey (1930-1931). 
  11. ^ Thisyamondol, Pantum; Virach Arromdi; Millard F. Long (1965). Agricultural Credit in Thailand. Bangkok: Kasetsat University. p. 31. 
  12. ^ The Nation (Bangkok). 1 September 1974. 
  13. ^ Winichakul, Thongchai (2002). "Remembering/Silencing the Traumatic Past: The Ambivalent Memories of the October 1976 Massacre in Bangkok". In Shigeharu; Charles, Tanabe; Keyes. Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos (Honululu: University of Hawaií Press): 243–286.