Rice and Politics in Thailand

As I expounded upon earlier, the City of Bangkok is a heaving beast that is growing and spilling into the countryside. So as we push out of Bangkok, it is remarkable how suddenly we emerge into fields of rice paddy. So in this post, I thought I should talk a little bit about rice and link up a few of the places and stories that revolve around rice on the Northern Line. But it turns out that there is actually a whole lot to say about rice. And I gotta say, I found researching and writing this really interesting. I hope reading it is so too.

Green rice paddies
The geography of central Thailand may seem flat and boring, but its shaped by some powerful forces.

Thailand runs on rice

Thailand, as I have come to learn, runs on rice. Rice agriculture uses over half the country’s arable land. Rice farmers represent more than half of Thailand’s workers — around 16 million people. Thats more than the population of Bangkok City (9 million) and about the same as that the “Greater Bangkok Metropolitan Region”.

These numbers are important because Thailand is, at least at times, a democracy. So the role the government plays in the rice industry is pivotal — particularly in deciding how to divvy up the gains of rice production between Bangkok’s traders and the rural farmers.

But lets get some historic perspective.

For most of history, rice farming was a small scale endeavour by peasants, generally for subsistence purposes. But the Green Revolution — often termed the Third Agricultural Revolution — hit Southeast Asia in the 1960s. This deserves its own novel, but essentially: scientists bred new varieties of rice that grew the maximum amount of seed on the stem without it falling over, and then backed it up with fancy new synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. So what, right?

Well, on a per acre basis, the yields of these peasants’ farms skyrocketed! So the value of their land skyrocketed. So they weren’t necessarily “peasants” anymore. But as students of 20th century politics know, producers don’t always reap what they sow. They kind of have to fight for it. Does this sound familiar yet?

Thats right, we’re in the middle of the Cold War, and flying over Thailand’s rice fields are B-52s. Thats how weird agricultural revolutions get. So, a few questions:

Q. Where are these B-52s going?
A. Viet Nam (and sometimes Laos or Cambodia).

Q. Why?
A. That explanation is long, complicated, and still traverses sensitive terrain. But I think, and I hope you will agree, a large part of that story is about the peasants in Viet Nam fighting to reap what they sow (and doing an incredible job of it too).

Q. Where are the B-52s coming from?
America, of course. But, interestingly, they’re taking off from runways nestled amidst the rice paddies of Thailand. Let me show you one…

B-52 at Utapao air base, 1973
B-52 at Utapao air base, 1973

On the Northern Line, you can see the radar of Takhli Royal Airforce Base perched atop one of the first hills to pop out of the Chao Phraya floodplain as we head North. With luck, you might see a F-16 Falcon, or L-39 Albatross fly by.

Old picture of aircraft lined up on a tarmac in Takli airforce base
The Takli Airforce base during the Viet Nam war.

The base has a rich history since it was founded in the early 20th century. Shortly before WWII, there was a Franco-Thai war, which saw the Royal Thai Air Force fighting the Vichy French’s Armee de l’Air, and achieving several dogfight victories. During WWII, with Thailand being an (arguably reluctant) ally of Japan, the base aided the defence of the Kingdom from Allied air raids, but also supported the Royal Thai Army’s occupation of the Shan States of Eastern Burma. And after WWII, Thai C-47s took off from here in support of the United Nations in the Korean War.


Then, parked here in the 50s you would have seen unmarked CIA-owned C-130 Hercules aircraft flying supply missions to Tibet to aid those fighting for independence against Mao Ze Dong’s People’s Liberation Army.

In the early 1960s, as the US involvement in the Viet Nam War was still just ramping up, you could find US-Airforce (USAF) reconnaissance aircraft based here. Then, as America got more and more bogged into the war, along came the USAF Tactical Fighter Squadron, with F-100 Super Sabres, F-104 Starfighters, F-105 Thunderchiefs, General Dynamics F-111s, and F-4 Phantoms.

Then, of course, the big bombers: the B-50 Superfortress, the B-66 Destroyer, and the now infamous B-52s Stratofortress.

By the end of the war in 1975, more bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than twice the amount dropped on Europe and Asia throughout WWII. A lot of these — perhaps the majority — were loaded onto aircraft in Thai air bases like Takhli. So let there be no question as to which side of the ideological divide Thailand stood.

Lets picture a Thai rice farmer in 1975, watching the path of a B–52 fly overhead, laden with bombs for her neighbours and agricultural peers to the East. What thoughts were going through her head?

Well, by 1975, she had seen 40 years of a military dictatorship — one which was setting a price for rice that she thought was grossly unfair. She was earning $50 a year, compared to $125 national average. And she’s swimming in debt to her landlords, middle-men, and creditors.

“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?”

Chit Phumisak - Thai revolutionary and poet
Chit Phumisak – Thai revolutionary and poet

This poem was written (in Thai) by Chit Phumisak, a philologist who the US Embassy in Bangkok hired in 1953 to translate Marx’s communist manifesto into Thai, in the hope that it would scare the Thai government into a more anti-communist stance. It seems that they instead created a communist revolutionary, and one of the loudest and most eloquent voices of Thai farmers. Chit Phumisak was murdered in 1966.

By 1975, our rice farmer was in revolt.

The Thailand Communist Party had long been formed, and had set up a militant wing in the Northern and Eastern hills that was being aided by the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. Breaking Thailand’s military support to the US was priority #1 in a mission for people-led democratic transition.

Rice farmers had been organised with the help of students, and protested in the streets of Bangkok. They formed a Farmer’s Federation, stopped paying taxes, and threatened to set up an independent “liberated area” in central Thailand if their demands were not met.

And they won some concessions, particularly in land reform, making rent negotiations more fair and transparent.

But then, the next October, the year after the Viet Nam war had ended in favour of the communists, after military leaders were forced to reshuffle and resign, and after 3 years of revolt by Thai farmers and students, the government snapped.

The “October 6 Event” is the euphemism still used for the Thammasat University massacre. Some of those involved are still involved in Thai politics, and the event is still a scar — perhaps an open wound — on the national psyche of Thailand. So, recognising I’m a foreigner with only part of the story, I’m not going to pick at it.

But through this tumultuous period in the 1970s, the people of Thailand learnt not to mess with the Thai establishment, and the Thai establishment learnt not to mess with rice farmers. There was a new understanding and equilibrium reached.


Two women working in a rice field
Over half of Thailand’s workforce is involved in rice agriculture.

Lets fast forward to the mid-1990s. Modern agribusiness has arrived. Automation. Improved machinery, chemicals and genetic strains. Larger investment over more scaled farms.

Rice is still central to Thailand’s economy. Over half of the workforce is still cultivating rice. But this new way of doing things is above the heads and out of reach of most small-scale rice farmers.

The balance of power has shifted back towards the capital — not by politics, but the economics of new technologies. Agriculture is booming, but farmers are being outcompeted — forced to the economic fringes, or to sell their land. Their children move to bigger towns. Thai village life is gradually becoming just a nostalgic story.

I could be describing your country, right?

It gets back to this same question of agricultural policy: How much of the gains of rice production stays with rural rice farmers, and how much goes to capitalists in Bangkok. Except there’s a new twist.

Bangkok is a new megacity. Its more diversified. Its no longer about rice trading. The 16 million people in Greater Bangkok probably want the budget of the Thai government invested into things like income tax cuts, urban infrastructure, and promoting investment into higher value-added activities in the manufacturing and service sectors.

The 16 million working in the rice economy just want relief — subsidies, pricing protections, and policies oriented towards helping small-scale farms.

Tiered and browned rice paddies backed by a forests
Tiered rice paddies in Thailand.

Yet Thailand has transitioned to a full democracy in the 1980s and, as a voting block, the city is surpassing the power of the farmer. And whereas the politics of the 20th century was a struggle between workers and capital — the political Left vs the political Right — there are early signs that the 21st century politics is becoming increasingly about the urban-rural divide.

I could be describing your country, right? And like in other countries (perhaps yours) these new dynamics create the political moment for the populist: Someone who speaks plainly to the rural folk; helps their confusion by spinning an alternative narrative that protects their pride; massages sentimental feelings of nationalism and ethnic identity; and promises the rural folk relief.

Taksin Shinawatra sitting at a table
Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Chinnawat meets with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on Sept. 19, 2005

Taksin Shinawatra was the billionaire who seized that political moment in Thailand. He founded a party called Thai Rak Thai — “Thais love Thais”. He entered the 2001 general electioon with a platform of offering universal access to healthcare, a 3-year debt moratorium for farmers, and 1 million THB locally managed development funds for all Thai villages.

By offering relief to farmers, he became loved in Thailand’s rural areas, and won the election comfortably. Over his first term he backed it up with village-managed development funds, low-interest agricultural loans, rural infrastructure development, and a rural small and medium enterprise development program.

He dominated in the 2005 election.

Yet, in Bangkok, Taksin was detested. He forgot a key lesson from 1976: don’t mess with the establishment.

Thaksin faced allegations of: corruption, authoritarianism, treason, conflicts of interest, muzzling of the press, tax evasion, lèse majesté, and human rights abuses, and was criticised for concealing his wealth, acting non-diplomatically, and selling assets of Thai companies to international investors.

A year after his re-election, protests had gotten so out of hand in Bangkok that the military held a peaceful coup d’état, formed a transitional government and promised re-elections, and chased Taksin out of the country and froze his assets.

Taksin went into exile, but that wasn’t the end of his influence or his politics.

True to its word, the transitional military junta held elections in 2007, but the fundamentals hadn’t changed. A reincarnation of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai party — with mostly the same members, and reportedly still led by the exiled Taksin — won that election. Protests continued in Bangkok, and the establishment continued to attack the party brass — this time, charges of electoral fraud caused a churn in leadership, but the party survived the term.

In 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra — the sister of Taksin — had taken the reigns and was campaigning to become the next Prime Minister. This time, she came up with a more elaborate scheme to relieve rice farmers: She promised to buy their all their rice at 50% above global market prices. It worked. She won.

Yingluck Shinawatra
Yingluck Shinawatra

At the time, India was the largest producer of rice in the world, but had a ban on all exports. This meant that Thailand was the world’s largest rice exporter, and had the power to drive the global price of rice.

Her election-winning scheme was to buy the unprocessed grains, store them in vast quantities and prevent them from reaching the international market. She would thereby push up international rice prices up, beyond even the 50% markup she bought it for, before selling it all off with a healthy profit. Genius right!?

However, the week after Yinluck won the election, India lifted its ban on rice exports! Indian rice flooded the global market, sending the price of rice on an historic dive… Ouch! I wish I had a photo of her face the moment she found out.

Furthermore, the 18 million tons of Thai rice that had been stockpiled began to deteriorate, and criminal gangs colluded with corrupt officials to steal it.

Altogether, the failed scheme cost Thailand 19 billion USD — money that could have gone towards providing basic services to the rural poor. Instead, the government’s funds dried up, leaving farmers unpaid, and protests against the new government got so bad by 2014 that the Thai military kicked Yingluck out of government and fined her over $1 billion for her role in the scheme.

The Thai people were fed-up. They generally approved of the military’s move to step in. And after the 2006 coup, there seemed like less of a rush for new elections, which would just mean unstable populist rule.

So thats where we stand today: Thailand is ruled by the National Council for Peace and Order — a military junta.

General Prayuth Jan-ocha - Prime Minister of Thailand
General Prayuth Jan-ocha – Prime Minister of Thailand

The story is, of course, more complicated than that. I’m glossing over a lot of important detail. But the centrality of rice in modern Thai politics continues. The rural poor want relief, and the urban elites want progress.

Everyone wants democracy, but it seems to me that, while Thailand is so polarised between urban and rural voters, democracy just leads to turmoil, and nobody wants more of that.

The current military rulers have come up with their own schemes to appeal to the rural poor and rice farmers, perhaps to their credit, or to their detriment. They have promised to hold democratic elections in 2019.

Rice production

If you’re taking the Northern Line, you will notice rice production happening everywhere — and precious little else, at times. So, in honour of Chit Phumisak, lets round this off by telling you what people are doing outside your window.

First, the muddy field is churned with a plough — usually with a hand-held tractor device but sometimes a buffalo drawn plough — to give the air a bit more air and moisture in preparation for seeding.

Secondly, whole rice seeds — basically rice with the outer husks still in place — is soaked in water for a couple of days to start the germination process. It is then spread over the ground, and the field is flooded with water from irrigation.

A hand with whole rice husks in it
Rice with their husks

With a bit of time, this grows green seedlings, which are then pulled up and put into bundles of 3. The bundels are then then transplanted — roots and all — across the field about a foot apart in a grid formation.

With a bit more time, the seedlings grow and the rice stalks emerge. By the time the paddy begins to turn brown, the rice is harvested by cutting mid-way up the stem. The cut stalks are beaten against a hard surface to release the rice, which is then dried in the sun. The rice you eat is the endosperm of the seed that has been separated from the husk.

Thailand generally has 3 harvests per year, but drought conditions of late has meant less harvests, and less yield, and more need for relief for Thai rice farmers.

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