Review of Land and Loyalty

Tomas Larsson, Land and Loyalty: Security and the Development of Property Rights in Thailand.

Ithaca, New York, and Singapore: Cornell Studies in Political Economy, Cornell University Press, and NUS Press, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 208; figures, tables, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by David Feeny.

This is an important book that will be of interest both to those with an interest in Thailand’s political and economic development and to those with broader interests in political and economic development in less developed countries. The book is well written and well researched.

Larsson’s main theme is that the principal motivation of the Thai government in shaping its policies concerning property rights in land was the implications for national security. He argues that securitization drove institutional development. The argument is sound and for the most part persuasive. But there are issues that warrant further discussion.

Brief Synopsis

I will not do justice to the nuanced and careful account of the evolution of property rights in land inThailand provided by Larsson; nonetheless, I will briefly summarize his argument. The book focuses on the period from the mid-nineteenth century through the early 2000s, divided into two major periods, 1855 to World War II and the post-WWII period. In the first period Thailand signed “free-trade” treaties with the major Western imperialist powers, treaties that included provisions for extra-territoriality.Thailand faced a serious threat to its independence; yet it was the only country in Southeast Asiato escape being formally colonized. Extra-territoriality applied not only to natives of the colonial powers but also to “alien-Asiatics”, Asian colonial subjects of the Western powers. Larsson argues that a major motivating factor for the Thai government was to avoid a situation in which foreigners would own large tracts of land. A second important goal of government was that Thailand be a country of small-holders, avoiding the creation of a large class of tenant farmers.

Yet in 1901 a new title deed law was enacted and thereafter implemented in the most commercialized rice growing districts in the Central Plain. To gain title to land, the owner had to be a Thai subject, thus undermining the not uncommon informal acquisition of agricultural land by “alien Asiatics”. The new cadastral survey titling system was based on the Torrens system innovated in South Australia in 1858. But there was little land titling outside of these prime areas. Larsson argues that the Thai government deliberately refrained from large scale land titling throughout the kingdom to hinder the accumulation of land by non-Thai subjects and the accumulation of large land holdings. I will return to these arguments below.

The post-WWII period was characterized by an evolving Communist threat to national security. Larsson argues that the rapid expansion of formal property rights in land was undertaken to “buy” the loyalty of the peasantry and strengthen the agrarian backbone of Thai society. The comprehensive 1954 land code created four classes of documentation of land rights. The two strongest forms were sufficient to permit the use of land as collateral in formal credit markets. Several technical innovations in the early 1960s, based in large part on then recent experience in Australia and New Zealand, supported the expansion of land titling, including both less costly local cadastral surveys and aerial photographic surveys.

I now discuss several issues in greater detail.

The Capacity of the Thai Regime

At times, and I admit to an element of exaggeration in my comments here, the interpretations offered by Larsson border on being uni-causal: that securitization explains just about everything. To be fair, Larsson quite appropriately notes the importance of context and notes that path dependency can be important.

Let’s return to the evolution of property rights in land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Larsson notes that the policies of the Thai government were designed to avoid the creation of a large landlord class and to avoid land falling into the hands of non-Thai owners. Fine. Yet there were other important forces and other explanations for the evolution of the documentation of property rights in land, explanations which, in general, are complementary to Larsson’s securitization theme.

In my own work (Feeny 1982), I noted that the opening of the Thai economy to large scale rice exporting and favourable movements in the terms of trade (ratio of rice export to textile import prices) led to an appreciation in the price of land. As land became more valuable, it became more important to document ownership rights. The payment of taxes on land and continued use of land had been sufficient to define ownership rights, but those rights were not well documented; it was difficult to link the paper document unambiguously to a specific parcel of land. Land disputes thus became common. Larsson notes that I (and other scholars) mistakenly interpreted a draft law proposed in 1892 to consolidate and more clearly specify and document land rights as a law that had been passed. Fine. Yet that such a comprehensive new land was drafted and warranted high-level consideration is still evidence of the importance of land disputes and attempts by the government to improve the system to reduce the number of disputes.

As noted above, in 1901 (and 1909) the Thai government did create new legislation to introduce the Torrens system of land titling, a system that required geodetic cadastral surveys. From 1880 to 1896 the Royal Survey Department (RSD) focused on mapping Thailand, an activity in part motivated by security objectives and one to which the RSD returned after 1909. In 1896 the RSD was diverted from mapping Thailandto conducting cadastral surveys, initially in Rangsit, an area northeast of Bangkok developed by Siam Canals, Land and Irrigation Company.  Much of the land in Rangsit was owned by absentee landowners, many of whom were government officials or other members of the Thai elite. The field surveys were led by R. W. Giblin, Director of the RSD from 1901-1909—a licensed surveyor trained in New South Wales, Australia, where the Torrens system was originally innovated, and an official in the Indian Civil Service on loan to the Thai government (Thomson, Feeny, and Oakerson 1992). The initial cadastral surveys were conducted in the heart of the commercial rice exporting sector, perhaps an area where the value of the land and frequency and intensity of land disputes justified the investment in land titling. But Rangsit was also an area in which Thai elites were landowners. The cadastral survey in conjunction with differential access to formal procedures also had distributional consequences. Commenting in 1916, Prince Rabi, the then Minister of Agriculture and former Minister of Justice, concluded that the courts had incorrectly evicted 29 previous occupants of Siam Canals, Land and Irrigation Company lands because, even though the previous owners had receipts for taxes paid on the land and other more “traditional” forms of documentation, the company had managed to have the land titles issued in its name (ibid.).

Although one of the objectives of the Royal Survey Department was to train Thai staff to replace expensive foreign officials such as Giblin, the initial cadastral surveys in Thailandwere expensive, in a sense a high-transaction-cost approach to enhancing the security of land rights. It is interesting to note that one of the factors that helped to accelerate land titling in the 1960s was the development of less costly local cadastral and aerial surveys. Larsson views the rather incomplete program of cadastral surveys and land titling in the pre-WWII period as evidence of the desire to avoid large landholding and foreign ownership of land. It is also important to note that formal land titles were provided in the most commercialized region. This is consistent with an economic argument that in that region the higher value of land warranted the higher transaction costs of providing titling.

Of course, formalizing the land rights of elite Thais in their own holdings provides an additional private-gains incentive that also influenced government policy. Stepping back, however, one could argue that perhaps the adoption of the Torrens system was premature, that in general the gains in economic security and productivity in a Thailand which still enjoyed an extensive land frontier did not justify extending the Torrens system throughout the kingdom. And the Torrens system was recommended by foreign experts as “state of the art”; its adoption, as Larsson, notes was viewed by colonial governments as a sign of modernity, furthering the case for abolishing extra-territoriality. That the Thai government waited until after WWII to engage in land titling probably also reflects constraints on its capacity to have done undertaken an extensive program of land titling in the pre-WWII period. The Thai government had to be very selective not only in the projects for which it was willing to incur foreign debt but also in limiting the number of major initiatives that required the use of its limited organizational and leadership resources. So private gains to Thai elites and the limited public administration capacity of the Thai government also contributed to the lack of widespread titling in the pre-WWII period; securitization is not the only factor that mattered.


A theme developed in Feeny (1982) is that, instead of investing in a major irrigation project that would have increased land productivity and thus contributed to economic development, the Thai government invested in railroads that served public administration and military objectives. This argument is consistent with Larsson’s securitization theme. Rebellions in 1902 in the North, Northeast, and South underscored the potential usefulness of the railroad to Thai officials. Indeed it was important to be able to detect and suppress domestic disturbances before they became a pretext for imperial colonial military interventions. Larsson notes that while the foreign treaties limited the ability of the Thai government to increase land taxes and thus capture some of the gains of investing in improving agriculture, the Thai government could readily capture of some of the gains associated with railway investments. Fine. But even though the Thai government pursued policies to enhance the commercial viability of the railroads by restricting highway development to the construction of feeder roads, the railroad barely paid for itself (Feeny 1982, p. 79). There were few gains to appropriate. While the railroad did reduce travel time for passenger traffic, it played a rather minor role in supporting the export economy. But the railroad did enhance security.

Integration and Synthesis: The Thai Case

As noted above, Larsson’s heavy emphasis on the role of securitization inhibits his ability to provide a more informed and comprehensive synthesis of the factors influencing the development of land rights inThailand, and more broadly political and economic change inThailand. Of course, in a sense for a social scientist this “goes with the territory”. His political science model, like all models in the natural and social sciences, both illuminates (highlights the importance of security motives) and potentially distorts (under-emphasizes the importance of other factors and forces). Of course, the same comment applies to my own economics-based interpretations of Thai underdevelopment! What is good social science can be disappointing as history, as a narrative that has the potential to provide a comprehensive and balanced view and interpretation of events.

Larsson chronicles the expansion of land titling in the 1960s as being motivated by “winning the hearts of minds” of Thai peasants in response to Communist insurgency and other security issues. Fine. But the land titling also supported a new wave of Thai agricultural exports, maize, cassava, kenaf, and other crops, often grown in upland areas in the Central Plains and in the Northeast.

Integration and Synthesis: The evolution of institutional arrangements

This book should be of interest not only to scholars of Thailand(or even Southeast Asia). Larsson provides insights into the factors that influence the evolution of government policies in less developed countries, policies that can affect both the degree of economic and political development and the distributional consequences of those developments. Although Larsson does cite a number of important publications on institutional development (North 1981) he does not integrate his account of land titling in Thailand into the larger literature on institutional change (examples include Hayami and Ruttan 1985; North 1990; and Feeny 1993). There is a missed opportunity to refine and improve those frameworks by applying them to an important Thai case study.

In summary, I highly recommend this book to you. It is a fine piece of scholarship. Personally having not been active in Thai studies for many years, it was a delight to return to the subject matter. Be on the alert for more important work by Tomas Larsson.

David Feeny is Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, University of Alberta.


Feeny, David. The Political Economy of Productivity: Thai Agricultural Development, 1880-1975.Vancouver: TheUniversity ofBritish Columbia Press, 1982.

Feeny, David. “The Demand for and Supply of Institutional Arrangements,” pp. 159-209 in Vincent Ostrom, David Feeny, and Hartmut Picht, eds. Rethinking Institutional Analysis and Development:  Issues, Alternatives, and Choices. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1993.

Hayami Yujiro and VernonW. Ruttan. Agricultural Development:  An International Perspective. Revised Edition.Baltimore: TheJohnsHopkinsUniversity Press, 1985.

North, Douglass C. Structure and Change in Economic History. First Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1981.

North, Douglass C. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Thomson, James T., David Feeny, and Ronald J. Oakerson. “Institutional Dynamics: The Evolution and Dissolution of Common Property Resource Management,” 129-160 in Daniel W. Bromley, General Editor, Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy.San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1992.

About David Feeny, NM-TLC Reviewer