Promoting royalist conservatism (again)

6 03 2011

Prachatai has a revealing article regarding the land reform proposal by the National Reform Commission and the take on it by National Reform Assembly Chair and dedicated royalist Prawase Wasi. PPT isn’t about to repeat the article, which is worth reading in full, yet we can provide some context for it.

Prawase has explained that giving 5-6 rai (a miserly 0.8-0.96 hectares) to “farmer families for sufficiency agriculture will bring the country out of its crisis.” That’s an enormous claim based on, for PPT, some remarkably dubious, deeply ideological and outdated, ideas, coupled with a fear of conflict seen in the unmentionable red shirt demonstrations and the “massive political demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, [which] in essence, stem from economic problems.”

What’s the “current crisis”? Prawese suggests a complex pictures that he simplifies to 4 components: (1) An economic crisis that he identifies as an “overwhelming gap between the rich and the poor. Thailand has tied its macro-economy closely to the global economy which has been extremely volatile; as a result, it has seen repeated crises and foreigners have come to take over banks, hotels, retail businesses, etc. Free trade agreements benefit certain big business groups, but devastate small people.” (2) A social crisis involving a “lack of justice and overwhelming inequalities…” that leads to “social problems” and the “frustration” of the poor that “will burst open.” (3) An environmental crisis that has resulted in deforestation, floods, and droughts. He also refers to the “use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture and the mining industries poison the land and the environment, and toxins have entered the human body, causing cancer and crippling fetuses.” Finally, there is (4) the political crisis which he blames on the previous three issues.

How is this complicated complex of crises to be rectified. For Prawase, that is simple: give people a small plot of land and they can farm it in a sustainable, non-market, and secure way. Prawase blusters that “His Majesty the King’s Sufficiency Economy will become the world’s new civilization…”. The king saves the world! These royalists really do get hopelessly lost when it comes to spit-polishing the royal image.

The first thing to notice is that  this is not a new account. Well before anyone even thought of using the term “sufficiency economy,” Prawase was making the same points sans the royalism. Look at his chapter in Seri Phongphit and Robert Bennoun’s collection, Turning Point of Thai Farmers, published in 1988, where the same argument is made. It is in a book that includes several studies that examine farmers seeking “self-reliance.” Some of these are now claimed in the literature to have been “sufficiency economy” successes. The book is not readily available now. The only thing that gets close on the Web is here, by Kevin Hewison, and it includes a critique of Prawase back then. Not much seems to have changed. [Related, see Hewison’s comments on sufficiency economy at New Mandala.]

Prawase harps on these things because he believes a “plot of land will give people security in their lives and the economy” and leaves them outside the market system. Prawase believes that “subsistence agriculture does not take much time, 1-2 hours a day.” PPT knows plenty of farmers who know that Prawase is displaying his ignorance of farming. But that doesn’t matter much because this argument is as much for the soft hands of the city as for farmers.

With a tiny subsistence plot, “each farming family can have a small reservoir to provide a year-round water supply for aquaculture, vegetables, fruits and poultry to meet their own needs in the practice of subsistence or sufficiency agriculture…” and can find “a balanced and sufficient way of life.” He provides examples drawn straight from the royal web page on sufficiency economy.

As an aside, he believes that this will reduce crime because having a plot means not having to “commit suicide or crime.” They will not have debt and they will live happily ever after.

This is a fairy tale and it is based on a profound misunderstanding of farming and farming families. It is also classic conservatism. More worryingly, it suggests a lack of understanding of the nature of Thai society in the present. Hence the solution is to promote a backward-looking policy essentially invented in 1997 to support hyper-nationalism and prevent expected social unrest from the economic crisis of the time. Keeping people on the farm or encouraging or forcing them back to tiny farms is now seen as a political solution for multiple crises [be aware, this is a big download].

What of the rich, including royal plutocrats? What of Sino-Thai business tycoons? Where is the land to come from? What of all those foreign-invested companies? What of those who have lost their farming skills? What of those who prefer a modern existence rather than farming?

This is good royalist talk that aims more to bring back alliances rather than solve any problems. Prawase is mouthing the same ideas that the king and his supporters used in 1997 to “save the country” – read save domestic capitalists – by avoiding social upheaval. These ides pulled at the heartstrings of so many NGOs, intellectuals and their ilk that they all piled on the royalist caravan that led to PAD, military coup and the current crisis. Will it work again? Will it keep the royalist elite in power a little longer?


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