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Claims that the Rural Thai people are “peaceful” are based, in part, on a remarkable study conducted by Phillips (1965) between 1956 and 1958 in a village in Central Thailand. The nonviolence that Phillips recorded in Bang Chan was a result of the Buddhist values of the people and the fabric of their rural society. But 50 years have passed. How much have social conditions in Central Thailand changed over the years? Have economic and social changes in the region affected the peacefulness and stability of Thai rural society?

A journal article published last year by Rigg et al. addresses some of these questions. Though not focused on the peacefulness of the villages per se, it does analyze some of the social changes brought about by the modernization of rural Thailand, particularly in the capitol region. Bang Chan, the village studied by Phillips, is 35 km northeast of Bangkok, while Ayutthaya province, examined by Rigg et al., is 75 km north of the city.

The authors focus on the establishment of the Rojana Industrial Park, a development that extends over 672 hectares in Ayutthaya. It examines the effects of the development on the local economy and society. As of 2005, the industrial park employed over 43,000 workers, mostly immigrants from other parts of Thailand, many of whom are housed in dormitories in the village of Baan Khokmayom. The impact from these new people has been enormous.

Descriptions of the villages in Ayutthaya province before the industrial development, provided by elderly people, sound very much like Bang Chan at the time Phillips studied it. Everyone in the village identified as a rice farmer and social life focused on the village. The villagers were preoccupied with the cultivation of enough rice to meet the economic needs of their families for the year. No one could contemplate selling any of their land, which had been handed down in their families for many generations.

The villagers, for the most part, grew enough food for their own needs. In addition to rice, they caught fish in the nearby canals, raised fruits and vegetables, and, in the dry season, some of the men temporarily took wage laboring jobs in Bangkok. Life centered on the homestead, the focus of relationships with family and friends. Most of the family income was based on agricultural pursuits.

Rigg et al. indicate that the villagers still think of wet rice farming as the center of rural identity, as “emblematic of what it is to be Thai (p.365).” In fact, however, very few people today work as farmers. Most work in the Rojana Industrial Park, which opened in 1988, in one of the other industrial parks in the province, or in service jobs that support those workers.

While some families in the province still own land, it is economically unimportant except as an investment. The farm economy has worsened, environmental problems have increased, and almost everyone prefers to make a living through wage employment. The open land that remains is now being rented out and managed by professional farmers, and farming has become a memory for most of the people. The social status of farming has dropped—few want to do it now.

But the social structures in the province are affected by more than simply the change from farming to wage labor. People are increasingly able to commute to jobs—they are more mobile than they were 50 years ago. Many younger people leave home for lengthy periods of time to take jobs elsewhere, returning only sporadically. An even greater source of disturbance, particularly for Baan Khokmayom, has been the construction of the dormitories.

The first dormitory, called a hor pak, opened in 1990, and today there are 30 of them. They tend to be filled with migrants from northeast Thailand, a poor area of the country. They typically arrive alone, without their families, who stay in the home villages. They remain outsiders, rarely part of the Central Thai villages except on the occasion when one marries a local person.

The authors describe some of the effects of these changes in the province. Conflicts have developed that were not part of the social landscape earlier. Interests of factory workers are not the same as those of the individuals who still farm. Interests of the managers of the dormitories are not the same as those of the people who still try to cherish their village institutions. Local people now have to fence, gate, and lock their homes and properties to prevent theft by outsiders who come to the region only for the money that they earn at their jobs.

The presence of outsiders living in the dormitories has eroded the sense of community. People no longer know one another—they work hard and have little time or incentive to socialize with neighbors. The factory is the place for socializing, the dormitory a place for sleeping. Unmarried people in the dormitories establish live-in relationships, outside the moral structures of the home villages or the local community. Disparities in wealth exacerbate the divisions between people.

The rural people appreciate the advantages that “progress” has brought to their communities, but they also recognize and sense their losses. The accumulation of wealth has brought more social malaise, more individuality, and more crime. The land has been degraded, and there is little hope that the region could return to an agricultural base any time soon. The techniques of farming have mostly been forgotten. The villages have lost the identity that they once had.

Whether the villages of central Thailand preserve any elements of the peacefulness that Phillips (1965) described is not clear. Perhaps a future study will analyze this issue in more depth. In the meanwhile, this is a significant contribution to our understanding of the economic and social forces at work among the Rural Thai.

Rigg, Jonathan, et al. (2008). “Reconfiguring Rural Spaces and Remaking Rural Lives in Central Thailand.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 39(3): 355-381.