The Failure of Agricultural-based Economic Development in Thailand's Far South and the Impact on the Insurgency.

AuthorBenbourenane, Ornanong Husna

This article examines Thailand's national economic development policies, with a particular focus on the country's provinces in the Far South since the resurgence of ethnic conflict there in 2004. It focuses on the interaction between agricultural policy, income distribution and the ongoing violent conflict given how the success or failure of the government's agricultural policies and programmes affects the livelihoods and well-being of a large proportion of the population in those provinces. An understanding of the Far South's agricultural development helps forecast the future development, prosperity and peace of this restive region.

The Far South provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were annexed by Siam in the early twentieth century as a result of the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty. The region connects Thailand with Malaysia, and comprises 2.13 per cent of Thailand's total territory. Of the Kingdom's population of 66.55 million people, 2.06 million (3.1 per cent) reside in the three provinces. Additionally, while the country's population is overwhelmingly Buddhist (93.6 per cent), Malay-Muslims make up approximately 80 per cent of the Far South's population. (1) Most of the Malay-Muslims in the Far South live in rural areas, working either as fishermen, rubber smallholders and tappers, small-scale farmers, shopkeepers, vendors or labourers.

The insurgency in the Far South is rooted in a Malay-Muslim separatist movement that emerged in the 1960s. (2) The movement has been motivated by a combination of historical legacies, ethnic and religious cleavages, identity politics, national-level political conflicts, poor governance, legitimate participatory rule, socio-economic grievances, bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption, local power politics and external intervention and support. By some estimates, over 60 armed separatist groups have been formed in the Far South since the 1960s. (3) The insurgency, which had seemingly petered out in the 1980s, reignited in the early 2000s as a new generation of separatists emerged. The conflict escalated after insurgents raided a Thai army camp in Narathiwat and stole hundreds of weapons on 4 January 2004. (4) As of December 2020, 20,847 violent incidents had been recorded in the Far South, resulting in 7,201 deaths and 133,940 injuries. (5) Since the resurgence of the conflict, the government has spent over three trillion Thai baht (approximately US$10 billion) in an attempt to quell the insurgency, with little success. (6) Along with the imposition of martial law and emergency decrees, there have also been efforts towards addressing Malay-Muslim grievances in the realms of justice, language, education, history and economic development. Successive Thai governments have put economic development policies at the centre of their counter-insurgency strategies.

Although the annual number of violent incidents has fallen since 2012, the conflict continues to simmer. In December 2020 alone, 50 violent incidents occurred which led to nine deaths and six injuries. (7) Peace has been elusive and as a result the well-being of the Far South's population has greatly deteriorated. According to Thailand's National Statistical Office, the three southern provinces have been among the country's ten provinces with the worst rates of poverty for almost every year in the past decade. (8) Poverty rates in the provinces reached the highest percentile in the country for the first time in 2017. (9) With 40 per cent of jobs in the region dependent on agriculture, more than 220,000 households are reliant on this sector. Due to this high dependence, successive Thai governments have implemented various policies and programmes since 2004 to increase the yield and quality of the region's agricultural products.

Since Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat took office in 1958, it has been the belief of successive Thai governments that an improvement in socio-economic conditions in the Far South would help win "hearts and minds", hence reducing support for insurgent groups and bringing an end to the separatist conflict. (10) For instance, during the 1970s and 1980s, when separatist violence was at its peak, the government increased funding for the region's agricultural, industrial and infrastructural development, alongside military efforts to suppress the insurgents. (11) Similarly, the resurgence of violence in 2004 has prompted governments to reintroduce economic development projects in hopes of ending the conflict. These include the planned Narathiwat Special Economic Zone, price subsidies for rice and rubber, (12) marketing support for the region's agricultural products, (13) financial assistance and loans, and technology support for small farm-holders. The policy to establish a halal food industrial estate in Pattani Province was first introduced in 2002 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government, but it has not materialized yet. The current government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also plans to develop the region into a production hub for agricultural products as well as a halal food production centre.

This article's overarching question is: how has the Thai government's agricultural-based policies and the ongoing conflict since 2004 affected the economic and social well-being of the Far South's population? It analyses published information from various sources, including Thai government and private agencies, (14) international governmental organizations, (15) think tanks, (16) and media outlets. The article also makes use of data from governmental archives (17) and interviews with officials to help understand the Thai government's agricultural development plans for the Far South.

To understand the various variables that affect the income level of farmers in the Far South, this study examines geographical data (to illustrate the changing use of land resources) and statistical data on crops promoted by the government (such as para rubber, oil palm and fruit trees) and fisheries since 2004. It also tracks annual farm gate prices and yields, as well as the values and volumes of fisheries. This allows for an assessment of the efficacy of the government's promotional efforts. Additionally, this article investigates how the violent unrest has impacted the income and livelihood of the Far South's population by utilizing expert reports and published information from survey data, including data on perceptions, income distribution, poverty rates and social inequality. (18) Through the analysis of data from the abovementioned sources, this study identifies patterns of the government's economic development strategy and describes and monitors changes in the Far South's agricultural development from 2004 to 2020.

The article begins by surveying the theoretical debates on the relationship between economic development and intra-state conflict. It then considers the government's economic development policies and efforts to eradicate poverty, which have been far less successful in the Far South than nationwide. After discussing the government's agricultural-based development policy, the article moves on to analyse the factors which have contributed to the increase of the Far South's poverty rate. These are not limited to ineffective agricultural development policies, but also include the unrest that has created unfavourable economic development conditions. Hence, these factors form a chain of negative effects which have created a poverty trap. Finally, in the context of the government's failed development policy and its inability to find a political solution to the conflict, this articles makes a bleak assessment regarding the future of the Far South. It predicts that if the failures persist, it will further hurt the Far South population's economic and social well-being, deepen their sense of alienation, and hinder the country's broader national economic development plans and objectives.

The Relationship between Economic Development and Intra-state Conflict

The relationship between intra-state conflict and economic development has been intensively examined and debated. In studies of civil wars, there tends to be a broad consensus that poverty is a leading risk factor. (19) For example, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeflery point out that poverty can be both a motivation and an opportunity for rebels. (20) On the one hand, low income can serve as an objective economic grievance and a motivation to rebel. On the other hand, enlisting as a rebel can be an economic opportunity for paid work especially when wages are low. Wenche Hauge's study, for instance, identifies the pull and push factors which led girls to join a small guerrilla movement and fight against a much stronger national army in Guatemala. The push factors included grievances, repression and discrimination, poverty, lack of education and employment, and homelessness due to conflict. The pull factors included seeking security in fighting forces, ensuring access to food, finding a sense of belonging and ideology or group identity, as well as economic reasons such as profit seeking. (21)

In its comprehensive study of civil wars in 18 countries, the World Bank concludes that war is not only a problem for development but also a failure of development. In other words, when development succeeds, countries become safer; but when development fails, they are at greater risk of conflict. (22) Violence can prevent countries from escaping poverty and, in some cases, become the primary cause of poverty. In The Violence Trap: A Political-Economic Approach to the Problems of Development, Gary Cox, Douglas North and Barry Weingast explain how the perceived risk of violence deters the sort of investment that is most effective at permanently reducing that risk, hence trapping society in a cycle of underdevelopment and conflict. (23) There is, therefore, a clear link between poverty and violence. Many governments worldwide have adopted economic development as...

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