My dissertation, A global commodity’s regional cast: governance, smallholder rubber, and the state in southern Thailand, considers the politics of rubber in southern Thailand in light of steep declines in global natural rubber prices falling off of peaks since 2012.
Drawing from close to sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, I focus primarily on the ways in which many smallholder rubber farmers I engaged with in and around Nakhon Si Thammarat’s Cha-uat District interpret the factors that underlie low rubber prices and in turn envision ways in which prices can be lifted. I selected my primary research site to be Cha-uat, a district where substantial protests over falling rubber prices took place in August and September 2013. While these episodes were critical in prompting rounds of protest in Bangkok that would culminate in a coup d’état ousting then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office in May 2014, considering them in retrospect (close to two years after they had transpired) during my research eventually presented as an entry point, instead of an end, into studying rubber as a political concern. Although, as will be shown, ‘political’ implies appealing to extra-partisan lenses as well.
Concerning low rubber prices in recent years, I found that people often framed the problem in large part as a consequence of an ever-expanding footprint of rubber cultivation across Thailand, especially into northeastern provinces. This, many held, has been geographically wayward and largely attributable to faulty policy maneuvers by the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the early 2000s—in sum, leading to widespread senses that there is a glut of Thai rubber. Such claims are in some tension with the fact that Thai rubber prices are highly correlated with global prices of crude oil and other commodities such as copper, not to mention rubber futures prices on commodity exchanges such as those in Singapore and Tokyo—monthly averages for one-month rubber futures on the Singapore Commodity Exchange exhibited a correlation coefficient of 0.99 with average monthly Thai rubber prices over the past eighteen years.
Thus, the markedly regional frames invoked by people I spoke with in southern Thailand about rubber prices suggest a reconfiguration of emphasis, fastening contentions about rubber prices into processes that have transpired within the nation state. Of course, the incidence of farmers expressing frustration with low product prices and subsequently placing calls on the government for interventions or other forms of agricultural assistance is not unique to southern Thailand, nor is it unique to rubber. However, in my dissertation I hold that it is worth paying attention to the way in which calls for interventions intersect with geographic registers, namely those pertaining to southern Thailand as an identifiable subnational region.
In the title, I have chosen to use the term, regional cast, as a descriptor of this type of economic governance. ‘Cast’ simultaneously implies actors (as in the Thai state and individuals) as well as imprints left on agricultural landscapes.
The relationships conveyed, between rubber as a form of agriculture and senses of belonging in southern Thailand, allow me to look at both the inclusionary and exclusionary dimensions of the region, considering, on the one hand, the ways in which rubber has contributed to senses of regional belonging. On the other hand, I take into account peoples’ perceptions on the Thai state’s roles in reconfiguring the geographies of rubber in the country as ones compromising—conflicting with and shaking the filaments of this identity nexus. Through four substantive chapters and a conclusion, I argue the following thesis: Not only was southern Thailand’s rubber economy a key ‘actor’ in the political changes that took place within Thailand’s national government in 2013 and 2014; additionally, I contend that responses to declining rubber prices in recent years (pre- and post-coup) reify senses of regional identity—and its activation, regionalism—that are mobilized to challenge and renegotiate existing scales of economic governance.
After the introductory chapter, I discuss how the production and pricing of natural rubber, in other words actually-existing features of economic governance, cohere within the analytical purviews of scholarship in the vein of global production networks in economic geography. I thus begin with a consideration of this work and bring up how production-network, or GPN, studies are held to be improvements over earlier iterations of commodity analyses, such as global value chains, in part because of a broader engagement with other ‘actors’, such as the nation state as well as various institutional arrangements. A number of studies take GPN-related work to task, though, for instance due to an overly economistic focus. Such scholarship offers an important point of departure for me, and I aim to draw out the significance of a nexus forged at the intersection of smallholder rubber cultivation and the subnational region, as this engages with the sine qua non scales of economic governance over the price of rubber. As an intervention into scholarship in economic geography, critically engaging with GPN perspectives is meant to demonstrate that continuing to draw from, and develop the conceptual and analytical capabilities of, these approaches is a productive exercise that lends toward making the GPN framework more robust by deepening the geographical insights made available through a study of situated relations surrounding a global commodity, such as those I consider here.
This specifically implies working a greater degree of malleability when thinking through the concept of scale itself, to take seriously peoples’ interpretations and perceptions of rubber in Thailand—perhaps in addition to, or beyond, the clearly global presence that the production and exchange of natural rubber have. As these frames rely on registers of regional identity and belonging, the concern is rendered necessarily political at the same time as it is economic. In other words, if rubber is conveyed as a regional concern, then the national government’s not addressing low prices is, by extension, felt to be a shortcoming in administration and political obligation.
In the first of my substantive chapters, I provide discussion on the role of the Thai state, since the early 20th century, of supporting smallholder rubber economies. This chapter mainly provides background to contextualize what people often said to me while I conducted research, of considering rubber as a livelihood—which they distinguished from a job or merely source of household income—and tying it into inclusionary senses of regional belonging. It also shows how state support for rubber and its widespread entry into rural agricultural profiles were for long geographically limited to Thailand’s southern provinces as well as a few provinces to the southeast of Bangkok whose climatic conditions are similar. Gradually, though, this would change, and rubber would begin to be planted widely throughout Thailand starting in the early 2000s—importantly, helped along through state subsidies.
In the following two chapters, I step back and consider the broader contexts of contest in which low rubber prices are situated. The first of these chapters looks specifically at the price protests that had taken place in 2013 and offers that, inasmuch as they may have helped to catalyze political protests further down the road in Bangkok in 2013 and 2014, they also shed light onto more complex, multidimensional political concerns of rubber for many in southern Thailand. Due to the meeting points I hold there to be between rubber and region in southern Thailand, through this chapter I show how it is possible to infer the ways in which inattention to rubber prices is in turn perceived broadly on par with other regionally defined political concerns—for instance representation in Thai parliament and even more mundane issues such as perceived differences in highway and railroad infrastructure across Thailand’s provinces. Further, by zeroing in on the protests as more than partisan-political, I draw attention to the senses among people that, ultimately, these protests had not met their intended substantive objectives and had actually been coopted in large measure by politicians’ agendas.
The second of these chapters extends this conversation into the period after the coup d’état in 2014, during which time clampdowns on free speech by the military government have meant that open protests would be followed by arrests of those involved. As rubber prices had continued to drop, though, a lack of protest clearly does not mean that peoples’ frustrations had gone away. Considering various other forms in which discontent is shown, in this chapter I engage with the example of the shadow play, which, in Thailand, is a public performance art closely associated with the South specifically. I look at the work of one performer who includes the current Prime Minister, Army General Prayut Chan-ocha, as one of the puppets in the show who engages with one from a recurring cast of clowns. These plays enjoy widespread popularity, and as scholars have noted, clowns are caricatures of southern Thai villagers themselves. The themes that emerge between the conversations involving the clown and Prayut Chan-ocha speak to overall themes of regional distance and marginalization, which include, but aren’t limited to, rubber.
The following, final substantive chapter returns to focus on the rubber-region nexus and economic governance, but it builds from the discussions of regionalized solidarities and collective senses of marginalization which permeated discussions in the preceding two chapters. This chapter keys into senses of agricultural transgression, that rubber’s growth beyond southern Thai provinces has led to price declines. I choose to refer to these as ‘scalar translations.’ While they may also be considered as frames, the word, translations, captures the emphasis devoted to the amount of rubber grown within Thailand while bracketing out the growth within neighboring countries as well as the other features determining rubber prices. The chapter focuses specifically on perceptions that policy maneuvers to support rubber cultivation in northern and northeastern provinces have been faulty and have adversely impacted rubber prices—and by extension southern Thais themselves.
I conclude the dissertation by returning to the conceptual discussion raised at the beginning of the dissertation: while acknowledging the economic outcomes rendered through articulation into a global production network, it is also necessary to pay close attention to the ways in which extra-economic, political factors embed peoples’ experiences producing a commodity such as rubber, in turn deepening geographic insights into these processes.
Notes: Graph and all images produced by author using external data sources: (a) Rubber prices available from the Office of Agricultural Economics (oae.go.th). (b) Rubber planted in Thai provinces and districts available from National Statistics Office’s Census of Agriculture (2003, 2013) as well as the Office of Agricultural Economics. (c) Planted rubber at the national level for China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam available from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT). (d) Planted rubber for Lao PDR: 2003 estimates from NAFRI (2009); 2013 estimates from Vongkhamor (2016), cited in Kenney-Lazar, et al. (2018). (e) Planted rubber for Cambodia: 2003 estimates from FAOSTAT; 2013 estimates from Cambodian Ministry of Commerce (moc.gov.kh).