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THE RURAL CHALLENGES
Lakkana Punwichai is one of the famous contemporary Thai columnists. Some have compared her to Carrie Bradshaw from the television series and movie, Sex and The City. “Kamparka” of “Goblen flower” is her pseudonym for columns written with a special focus on women, relationships, gender and contemporary issues that appear regularly in some magazines and leading newspapers in Thailand. She earned a Master’s degree in human environment studies from the University of Kyoto. Prior to that, she read history at Chiangmai University. She has five books to her name, mostly compilations of her articles. Letters from Kyoto (2001), a book written while living in Japan where she spent seven years, has sold particularly well.
A: “For me, the image of the rural area that I know is based on Northern and Northeastern Thailand. I can imagine a new look for the village, based on my memory of the district where I was born and lived for about 40 years, which was Sankayom village and nearby areas.”
“The rise of the rural middle class can be seen very clearly from that village, but I’m not sure if it represents Thailand or Southeast Asia as a whole. However, it should be similar to those who live in an agrarian area in the region. In the past, most people there were farmers and during the off-harvest season they did gardening of soybeans, vegetables, etc. Roads were gravel; dam irrigation systems were very restricted, and water was vital to agriculture. My family had a business, so we had cash on hand more than other agriculture families who had only land and produce.”
“The majority of people lived in cottages and not many have toilets! Health stations and the improvement on sanitation came together with modern medical knowledge. There had been a clash between modern medical providers and folk medicine men. Forty years on, there have been many tangible changes. There were the first toilets, the first televisions, and the first radios. People shifted away from agriculture, as women got hired to do a variety of jobs such as umbrella painting and longan harvesting outside of the farming season. Children of those people got to study until the sixth or ninth grade, and were able to go on to become skilled craftsmen in many areas.
“They were the first generation of the rural middle class, not only in economic terms but also in the lifestyle dimension. For example, once they had achieved a sixth grade education, they then went on to work as housemaids or babysitters in the cities. When they had collected a certain amount of money, they returned with that money, which the intention of using it for investment and a lifestyle they had learned from families in cities they had visited, like Bangkok. With the local economic system shifting to become more cash-intensive, opportunities for educational advancement grew through the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB); previously parents only graduated with a sixth grade education, but their kids have had the chance to study up to the ninth grade, twelfth grade, or even the Bachelor’s degree.”
“When I was young, there were not many wooden houses; 70% of homes were covered with cogon grass but nowadays it is all concrete. These developments are not only the consequence of earning money from working, but also land use has been changing rapidly over the last 20 years. Many of those who possessed lands sold out their holdings almost entirely, keeping only enough land for their homes. Chiangmai’s urban planning has been changed by the construction of two outer beltways, which have led to many housing projects and subsequently led to the transfer of land ownership – from agricultural lands to housing projects. The owners of those lands then got modest chunks of money for investment, in a humble manner, like opening a savings deposit in a bank, buying bonds, supporting their children’s education, and opening a small shop or buying other land. These people are neither like those whose lifestyles are completely middle class nor metropolitan people, but they are no longer the rural people we have imagined. For leisure time activities, in the last 10 years or so, this new generation has gone abroad more, but not on luxurious trips to Europe; rather, they have travelled to Vietnam or Penang in Malaysia by car. We have seen a lot of local travel companies spring up, and their advertisements appear even on news programs. These tours have begun to expand more afar now that some have gone as far as Shanghai, resulting in the mobilization of the countryside, and knowledge of geography spreading, which has consequently led to some new realization of lifestyles beyond the local rural areas.”
A: “If regional democratization goes well, rural people will entirely transform to become entrepreneurs, allowing the rural middle class to be more distinctive. Meanwhile, the transformation from rural middle class to rural people migrating to the cities will increase, such as when children go on to become doctors in cities. There will be fewer in quantity but more intensity in some ways. It depends on the direction of development, such as can we make agriculture occupations more attractive for the next generations? Or will Thai farmers become like those in Japan, where not many farmers remain in the rural areas, having attained wealthy status, but none of their children aspire to follow in their parents’ farmer footsteps and instead have moved to big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. The cluster of prosperity will not change much as decentralization policies achieve only a certain extent, but the linkages between rural and major cities will increase but it also depends on welfare and how decentralization policies work out. From a global perspective, food security will be very important in the future. That means the rural middle class will be even more important as food producers while the rest of the world faces food shortages and supply problems.”
A: “The rural middle class will be the older, live their lives in a form of associations, and work through local administrations. Therefore, activities in the rural areas will mainly focus on the greying population such as the Association of Buddhism, Tai Chi and other development activities. The future is unsecured, the new generations all move to somewhere else but there might be an exception. The younger generation in the villages may discover that resources in the cities are too scarce, with too many competing for the same resources. They could think it would be more productive to start businesses in their home villages instead. For example, one young man came to work for advertising agencies in Bangkok and went back to farm on a longan plantation in his hometown, then developed it as successful home stay and coffee shop, offering luxurious tastes. His customers are Bangkokians who when they go on a trip want to consume everything they have in the capital. With this trend, the locals will find that they have abundant resources at home, and can turn these into cultural capital that can be further commoditized.”
A: “I think foreign labor will continue to be the victim of this as they are oppressed to bear our costs, and also those urban middle class office workers, who have to carry high living expenses while not receiving sufficiently high salaries to support their more expensive lifestyles. They are poor in terms of dreaming, just like the UK riots of summer 2011. They are not poor because they don’t have money, but have the perspective of being poor in that their ability to consume has not kept pace with their widened desires. For example, others read magazines with conspicuous consumption like Hello or Image, while you can only look at them when you are not so far away. This is marginalization of consumption. In Japan, the rich are too few as well as the poor, so they don’t face the same problems.
A: “People are no longer being exclusively farmers for their livelihoods; they are able to hope that their children can have best education available, and no longer expect their children to follow in their footsteps and live the same way. The way forward is to move to the better environment, but remain in the countryside. As the older generations had no or little potential to move anywhere else, they retain their native places, but if their children have chances to go abroad, they will be very happy. Those in cities often believe that people in the up-country are sticking with their origins as they sell their own lands. The up-country folks I know don’t cling to their parents’ lands, as they rather viewed it as capital for supporting next generations. Rural people are making more of entrepreneurship than those in cities; they think in cost-profit aspects a lot more than they should be regarded as greedy. But they are actually seeking opportunities, being realistic and if they are in agriculture sectors, they do things in a very business-oriented manner, such as contract farming of onions. Their businesses deal with millions of baht, not just tens of thousands, and so do their debts. The rural middle class has the ability to be more self-dependent than those in cities, while facing risks in terms of lacking state welfare – they are not secured by health insurance.”
 In Sansainoi sub-district, Sansai district, Chiang Mai Province