On many occasions, Thailand had shown its resilience and strength even in the middle of almost any crisis – be it political, economic, cultural, or environmental. Such resilience and strength are often measured by the performance of the country’s economy, especially under difficult situations and circumstances. And most of the time, the country’s economy bouncing back after a crisis has been driven by the country’s strong foreign investment, industrial and agricultural sectors. Many countries, including Africa, would like to learn how Thailand was able to achieve a new rural economy.
Thailand is just one of the Asian countries that have the experience in agricultural and rural development. This experience is being included in a research study looking at paired African-Southeast Asian comparisons. Thailand and some Asian neighbors like Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam have strong agricultural sector which drives the country’s economic growth – dropping poverty levels, increasing prosperity of communities in previously extremely poor rural areas.
New Rural Politics
The 21st century farmers of Thailand have moved away from old-style politics of the rural poor in defending the relationship they have established with the Thai state for the past 40 years. They did not have to resort to rebellion, revolution or resistance. They have instead used a strategy that engages with the powerful and not opposing them. This shift in rural politics is attributed to the middle-income farming community that exercises modern political thinking.
Political Backing for Rural Constituencies and Vice-Versa
Thaksin Shinawatra’s strong backing, through corrupt deals was a significant factor as the rural sector enjoyed benefits from such investment in exchange with backing the political party of Shinawatra in the political turmoil that plummeted Thailand’s economy downward. In many countries, it is usually the case that in a tussle between the urban elite and the rural folks, when the national political dynamic is laid bare, the impact of rural constituencies cannot be ignored, regardless of how much the urban and industrial boom continues. In Thailand, no political party can ignore the rural constituencies.
In Zimbabwe, rural differentiation which was unleashed by land reform presents a new and powerful constituency and this is making some major changes to the national political landscape. As in Thailand, the emergence of a strong, relatively economically successful middle peasantry is an important new occurrence. But the parallel with Thailand ends here.
Lack of Political Backing for Rural Poor
Unfortunately in Zimbabwe, the agriculture and rural development was not backed by the state, or any political formation as it was received and supported in Thailand, which resulted to the upward spiral economic growth. This did not happen in Zimbabwe. With a severely depressed economy, non-rural alternatives in Zimbabwe are simply not available. As such, the potential to have middle income peasantry is out of the picture at this time.
But there could be a lot of “what if’s” and maybe more lessons to learn here. What if a new political settlement focused on this new rural constituency where political survival and rural economic growth are closely linked? In Thailand’s case, Shinawatra’s political survival depended a lot on the rural economic growth. What if, in Zimbabwe, the new windfalls from mineral resources were used to revitalize the rural sector? This could result to a sort of agriculture-led economic growth that could spin off in employment, rural markets and the development of rural towns. Apparently, to achieve this, or for this to happen, Zimbabwe will need a new political settlement and a new economic vision, both of which are not present in Zimbabwe right now. But who knows? Maybe a shift in political forces in the coming years which could come out of changes in class affiliations, alliances and motivations will eventually gain the rural economic growth so desired by the extremely poor rural sector.
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