Since Thailand’s coup of September 2006, which forced the controversial government of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra out of office, pro- and anti-Thaksin forces have waged an intense battle for control of the government. Rural people in Thailand have played an important role in this struggle, but the nature of their politics is poorly understood. On the one hand there are breathless accounts of agrarian class struggle, while on the other hand rural protest is dismissed as the product of elite manipulation and financial inducement. These paradigms are unhelpful because they ignored the emergence of a new political relationship between the state and the rural population. Sustained economic growth since the 1960s had lifted rural households to levels of income and consumption previously unimagined. They are no longer mainly challenged by food insecurity but by the need to diversify economically and improve productivity. The state plays a key role in addressing these challenges through an array of subsidy, welfare, and community development schemes. Modern peasant politics in Thailand are motivated not by an antagonistic relationship with the state but by a desire to draw the state into mutually beneficial transactions. The classic frameworks for explaining peasant political behavior, based on rebellion or resistance, are impediments to understanding this new style of political behavior. Prof. Walker will propose instead an alternative model of rural “political society” based on the relationship between a persistent peasantry and a subsidizing state. Copies of Thailand's Political Peasants will be available for signing and sale by the author following his talk.
Andrew Walker is an anthropologist who has worked in northern Thailand since the early 1990s. His latest book is Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy (2012). His many earlier publications include “Royal Succession and the Evolution of Thai Democracy,” in Montesano et al., eds, Bangkok May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand (2011); Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and State in Mainland Southeast Asia (edited, 2009); Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers: The Politics of Environmental Knowledge in Northern Thailand (co-authored, 2008); and The Legend of the Golden Boat: Regulation, Trade and Traders in the Borderlands of Laos, Thailand, China and Burma (1999). He also co-founded and co-convenes New Mandala, a widely read and highly regarded blog that offers fresh perspectives, both analytic and anecdotal, on mainland Southeast Asia.