Craig J. Reynolds, a historian of Southeast Asia at the Australian National University, reviews Tyrell Haberkorn's book Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand, which was launched in late 2011.
Tyrell Haberkorn, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. xix + 230pp.
The overthrow of the absolute monarchy by the People’s Party in 1932 was a revolution? Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat’s coup in 1957-58 a revolution? Distorting, disappointing, and debased by usurpers, oligarchs, coup makers and dictators, revolution has less and less grip on any reality in Thailand’s history. The word translated out of Thai as revolution, patiwat, is also the word for revolt or rebellion, and it is the word embedded in the term for coup. Regime change, revolt and coup are challenges to political authority. Governments can change hands overnight, and such abrupt political change cannot be compared to the long-term processes and sequences of events stretching over years, even decades, that occurred in the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. Even the Vietnamese and Indonesian revolutions with their limited social transformations have more of a claim on the term than does the 1932 Thai event.
Tyrell Haberkorn proposes to rescue revolution from its low status in Thai historiography by revisiting the period from late 1974 to early 1975. Historical study is a salvage operation to recover what has been concealed, overlooked, forgotten or misunderstood. That particular historical moment, forgotten now by many or never remembered by some too young, began with a mass uprising in October 1973 and the dismissal of military government. A respected jurist became interim prime minister, and a new constitution was promulgated. In the heady days of participatory politics that followed, aggrieved cultivators established the Farmers’ Federation of Thailand (FFT), and an alliance of farmers, students and workers, the so-called three links (sam prasan), asserted their rights according to the new Land Rent Control Act (LCRA) of 1974. Unlike its stillborn predecessor of 1950, passed by the legislature during an earlier military dictatorship but enacted only in the central provinces, the LCRA of 1974 had been implemented as well as enacted.
Revolution Interrupted is a revisionist study on several counts. Tenancy and landlordism have never figured largely in Thailand’s economic history, especially compared to late colonial India and China where landlordism was one of the preconditions of peasant insurgency (India) and revolution (China). Because of low population densities in Thailand, land was always plentiful, so the argument goes, and availability of land was a deterrent against tyranny. Cultivators could always flee oppression and find new lands to clear. The control of people was more important for taxation than control over land. But as Han ten Brummelhuis pointed out in King of the Waters: Homan van der Heide and the Origin of Modern Irrigation in Siam (2005), this unexamined truism about labour as a scarcity applies only to specific socio-economic formations. In northern Thailand, for example, land ownership in modern times was different from the rest of the country. As the process of centralization by the Bangkok court from the late nineteenth century eroded the political and economic power of local noble and royal families in the north, local lords in some northern districts appropriated unclaimed land and rice lands of peasants. These land seizures were later effectively legitimated by the Thai government when it exempted the lords from land tax. By 1930 Chiang Mai had the highest rates of landlessness and tenancy in the north, and by the 1950s, rent rates had increased markedly. The peasants had plenty of grievances; land, not labour, was the focus of collective struggle.
The mid-1970s were full of idealism and promise in Thailand. The historic moment was marked by political upheaval throughout mainland Southeast Asia with communism resurgent in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But an ascendant People’s Republic of China and fears of communist victories in mainland Southeast created apprehensions in the Thai ruling elites who saw participatory politics as seditious, the work of foreign subversives. The land rights’ campaign came to a sudden and violent end. Between June and August 1975 eight FFT leaders were assassinated, including Intha Sribunruang (pictured), the brainy vice-president of the northern region, who was gunned down in front of his house in July of that year. The counterrevolution was definitely trigger-happy: a leader who attended Intha’s cremation was killed on his way home from the funeral. Such violent acts recurred again and again, culminating finally in the military’s return to rule in October 1976 by means of a coup disturbing in its brutality. Violence and extrajudicial killing render the few moments of humour in the book ominous and grim. An entourage of police officials inspecting uniforms laughs nervously when their boss reaches out to adjust a policeman’s collar and finds the man is wearing a necklace of grenade pins.
So what does Tyrell Haberkorn mean by revolution in the book? She follows E. P. Thompson in rejecting a model that concentrates on one dramatic episode – the Revolution – in favour of a model that admits many forms. Revolution interrupted means revolution re-interpreted and refers to how doctrinaire ideas of revolution and the party make it difficult to imagine alternative ways of challenging authority and redressing grievances. Revolution re-interpreted refers to the way the FFT and its allies exploited existing laws to advantage and aspired to new kinds of socialisation and moral order. Ideas and inspiration came from many sources, such as Paulo Freire’s radical philosophy of education, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was twice translated into Thai in 1974.
Other scholars Thai and foreign have written about the FFT, but none has been so engaged with the issue of human rights and their violation as Haberkorn. She is a voracious reader of radical political thought and writing on dispossessed and subaltern people in Latin America, North America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The ideas from this global literature are mobilized to draw the FFT struggles into a story of universal human interest and urgency. Most of the time this exercise is successful, but occasionally the connections are too loose. Reference to liberation theology with its Christian overtones, for example, is more gestural than insightful. A distinction would be useful between the appeal of ideas and ideologies from abroad and their foreignness. How, in a Buddhist context, is the foreignness overcome? I admit that the available source material yields very little to clarify the point.
The legacy of the Thai movement lives on, although the descendants of the FFT leaders might wonder what it was all about more than thirty-five years ago. The progressive undercurrent in rural politics of the 1970s has undergone a sea change since then. Factory farming and agribusinesses have altered the way the Thai farmer engages with the market. Farmers are now small-scale entrepreneurs and petit capitalists, and politically savvy in unforeseen ways. The rise of the Thai Rak Thai Party from its first national victory in 2001 to its dominance in the years that followed, and the Red Shirt movement that spun out of the party after the September 2006 coup, reflect the empowerment of the rural voter rather than the re-subjugation of the farmer that we read about in Haberkorn’s book. Socialism may not be dead, but the Thai Left of the 1970s nowadays ekes out the barest of existences abroad in a few Thai expatriate communities and niches of the NGO movement in Thailand. Yet one can see in Haberkorn’s story the seeds of today’s campaigns for the lawful redress of grievances and the mitigation of economic inequality in the rural sector and in the urban labouring classes.
At the launch of Haberkorn’s book in Canberra in late 2011, a speaker pointed out that “launch,” to set in motion, comes from Latin lanceare, to use a lance or to wield a spear. The author is not at all a violent person, but somehow I don’t think she would mind if this ancient usage informed her work, metaphorically of course, where politics, literature and history meet. She is inspired by Nadine Gordimer and Susan Sontag, both writers of tenacious intellect and humane vision. Susan Sontag once observed that “to be a moral human being is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.” Certain kinds of attention are plain to see in this fine book as Tyrell Haberkorn looks into one of the many dark corners in Thailand’s recent history.
Craig J. Reynolds
Published originally on Prachatai (English)
6 February 2013