Review of Revolution Interrupted

Tyrell Haberkorn, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand

Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. Pp. xix, 230; appendix, bibliography, index.  With a foreword by Thongchai Winichakul.

Reviewed by Nicholas Tapp.

Questioning received notions of revolution, this book offers a passionate and rigorous reconsideration of the period in Thailand between October 1973 and October 1976 from the vantage point of the struggle for land-rent reform spearheaded by the Farmers’ Federation of Thailand (FFT) in Chiangmai and Lamphun provinces.  It thus speaks to the 30-year silence which has shrouded the perpetrators of the political assassinations and violence that proved somehow able to “stop a movement over one million people” (p. 23). As Thongchai Winichakul’s Foreword pithily notes, the reconciliation of the early 1980s has meant the “suspension of the rule of law” and an organized forgetting which it is the purpose of this book to challenge. Haberkorn argues that there has been a “foundational exclusion” of marginalized people, on which governance in Thailand has depended since the 1932 coup (p. xi).  Inspired by Guha and others, she seeks to resurrect those people’s views and presence through a detailed examination of a whole range of official and unofficial archival sources supplemented by personal interviews with former student and farmer activists. This examination relates to a wider period than just the mid-1970s, stretching from the early 1950s up to the late 1970s, and the book also makes occasional, pointed references to the contemporary conjuncture.

As Haberkorn notes, the 1932 transition to a constitutional monarchy was hardly a revolution but clearly a coup. Nor was the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1973 a “revolution” since the King played so crucial a part in it. What has been, and is, genuinely revolutionary, is – for academic understandings as well as on the ground – the redefinition of politics away from the “affairs of the state”, aided by Gramscian notions of hegemony (pp. 14-15), towards a realization that political actors include those on the margins of society. Politics is not only “state administration and protests on the streets”, but it is also “the desire and will to imagine a different, more just society and the courage to take the risks necessary to bring it about” (p. 14). An interesting foot-note here cites Gloria Anzaldúa: “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads”. So it was the actions of farmers and students in the period under review which represented “the imagination of a different future” (p. 14). And it was this above all which was revolutionary in those years, in the sense of making new ways of relating and new social identities, and which has also proved part of an ongoing process, up even until today.

Haberkorn denies that hers is a “unifying narrative” of the type which would for example see a direct passage from the nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century peasant rebellions through the FFT up to today’s United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship.  She is concerned to draw attention to the constant interruptions of this revolutionary process, but there without doubt nevertheless a narrative here, one which importantly concerns an “ontological struggle”(p. 50) over who has had the power to name the truth about farmers’ lives. The argument is that recourse to the law, in the form of the campaign for the implementation of the Land Rent Control Act (LRCA) finally passed by the Sanya Thammasak government for the whole country in November 1974, was in fact a far more subversive activity than the armed struggle of the Communist Party of Thailand could ever have been.  Such recourse directly challenged the assumed benevolent relations of interdependence between tenants and landlords, as poor farmers became political actors themselves. This was not at all James C. Scott’s “weapons of the weak”, but rather a challenge to the system of domination in its own terms and strategies. “Law itself became a tool of revolution” (p. 20).

The October 1951 LRCA redefined landlord-tenant relations and promised significant reductions in the standardized land rents (p. 31), but the Ministry of the Interior was left in charge of deciding to what provinces it should be applied.  The following year a royal decree applied it to the 18 Central Thai provinces with high rates of land tenancy; even in 1973 tenancy rates of only 3.27% were reported in the Northeast. Chapter I examines the struggle of farmers in Chiangmai, which had rates of tenancy comparable to the Central provinces, to have application of the decree extended to Northern Thailand. Haberkorn traces the debate around the “non-decree” of this Act and the ways in which images of the farmers as the “backbone of the nation” were first challenged at this time, to be replaced more by fears that provoking class antagonisms between landlords and tenants would foment Communism than by direct accusations of Communist sympathies.

By the time of Sarit Thanarat’s coup of October 1958, as Chapter II (“From the Rice Fields to the Cities”) notes, possibilities of such open dissent had all but vanished.  Yet, throughout the 1960s, as the Cold War intensified, agrarian crisis mounted in the form of exorbitant land rents, landlessness and indebtedness. During the exciting, heady years of free speech, open publications, agitation and new forms of social organization in the years following October 1973, farmers transformed themselves into “a new kind of dissenting political subject” (p. 55) as protests escalated between March and November of 1974. Central Thai farmers’ protests in March on Sanam Luang, in the heart of Bangkok, led to the ironic use under the Sanya government of Article 17 of the Thai constitution (described by Thak as the modern legal basis for Sarit’s style of leadership) in the farmers’ favour, intended to empower the investigating committee into farmers’ grievances (pp. 60-61). Its ineffectiveness led to the June 1974 demonstrations on Sanam Luang and, as Haberkorn shows, in the space of a few days the power of the new alliance of students, farmers and workers led to the protesting farmers’ being seen as “chaotic” rather than as the “backbone of the nation” in one newspaper (p. 59). By August there were farmer threats to hand in identity cards and renounce Thai citizenship, stop paying taxes and declare a “liberated zone” (p. 65). It was around this time that the FFT was established.  By October 1976, it boasted a presence in 41 out of 72 provinces and was headquartered in Chiangmai. The farmers’ march on Chiangmai in March 1974 specifically repeated the calls for the application of the 1950 LRCA in Chiangmai and Lamphun which had been made earlier in the year. It was in December that the government decreed a new LRCA for the whole country, rather than extending the 1950 Act to the Northern provinces alone.

Chapter III (“From the Classrooms to the Rice Fields”) uses oral histories and written texts to provide a detailed examination of the panic caused by the subsequent and continuing alliance of intellectuals from the universities (and some schools) with farmers, and how a genuine Freirian pedagogy of solidarity was established. Of particular interest is the consideration of Chiangmai University’s Volunteer Development Assembly (VDA, founded in 1966) in comparison with the Sanya government’s Return to Rural Areas Programme as precursors to the “Farmer Project” (khrongkan chaona).  The latter was to work closely with the FFT and help to spread news and education about the new LRCA.  For Haberkorn, the impact of working with farmers may have been even more radicalizing for students than the radicalizing effects of students on the farmers stressed in Andrew Turton’s 1987 critique.

Chapter IV dives into the main theme of “Violence and Its Denials”, revealing through a re-examination of the complex politics surrounding the assassination of the northern FFT president Intha Sribunruang, “how the political became devastatingly personal” (p. 28). The unholy alliance between right-wing and paramilitary forces is considered in terms of a Gramscian crisis of authority, and with reference to Žižek’s “revolutionary micro-politics” (very much not Scott!) against the backdrop of events in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It was though their work together that students and farmers “actively imagined and created the possibility of a different, shared future” (p. 105) and that a radical restructuring of rural-urban relations occurred, as signified by the large-scale protest organized by the FFT in Bangkok in March of 1975. Mounting protests and actions against injustice led to increasing official surveillance, harassment, local-level violence and the well known assassinations of prominent FFT leaders. More alarming than the trangressive behaviour of middle-class students charted by Anderson (1977), Haberkorn stresses the threat posed by farmers like Intha who “understood and used their legal rights” (p. 121). She is not arguing that other rural issues such as mining and forestry were unimportant but rather that it was in the arena of struggles over the LRCA that rural conflicts were most focused and acute.

Chapter 5 (“A State in Disarray”) demonstrates that this disunity of the Thai state should be seen not as a “temporary aberration, but rather as constitutive of the state and its violence(s)” (p. 131). The book is full of vivid and striking vignettes, pulled from dusty archives or from the reluctant memories of those who have been subjected to the “production of unnameability” (p. 132). One of these recalls the remarkable behavior of Premier Kukrit Pramot after his home had been ransacked by marauding police in August 1975. Kukrit’s apparent magnaminity in dropping charges and “forgiving” the offenders is seen, as others have seen it, as a sign of the final abdication of state responsibility in the face of extra-judicial violence marshaled in the name of enforcing the very law it transgressed. Here were the police on strike, and threatening to use force to buttress the “law”. Indeed, this was a struggle over the control and definition of the law, and yet Kukrit’s actions could be seen as masterly, albeit paternalistic, compromise rather than as mere weakness.

Towards the end of the book, in the first of two imaginary scenarios of possible futures, Haberkorn quotes Thanin Kraiwichian’s vision of a Communist future, in which courts and political parties would disappear, there would be no more freedom of speech or of the press, land and valuables would become state property, religion would be dismantled, the importance of ancestry would vanish, children would spy on their parents and be killed in front of them, the words of the Communist Party would be law, and so on….Well indeed, just “imagine”… Still, as Haberkorn shows, the material fear of such things was a very real one. And finally, most importantly, “…what could not be imagined was landowners and farmers meeting on shared, equal terrain” (p. 154; reviewer’s italics).

The Conclusion of Revolution Interrupted also speedily charts the terrible events of 1976 including the fateful killing of Dr Boonsanong Punyodyana, general secretary of the Socialist Party of Thailand, by two gunmen as he returned home one night. Violence “remains unnamed”, and “justice and law remain selective” (pp.156-57), as recent cases have shown. We should not remain immobile, like “one-legged rabbits”, as Jit Phumisak had put it (p. 158).

Throughout the book there is discussion of textual sources which is original and compelling. The discussion of variant dictionary entries for images of farmers as the “backbone of the nation” in Chapter I (“Breaking the Backbone of the Nation”) is amusing and instructive, and the critique of an early article by a “Mister Bumbam” in Prachathippatai newspaper in 1951 talking about the “already cracking” backbone (pp. 39-42) sheds further light on the nature of this “fractured” backbone. Also in Chapter I, the correspondence considered between Thongdee Isarachiwin (Chiangmai MP at the time of the debate over the original enactment of the LRCA) and the central government, is valuable in illuminating contrary images of the countryside at this early time. Between the two tenancy struggles, the importance of Jit’s analysis of feudalism—which was published in 1957 and banned in 1959 and which then of course resurfaced in the 1973-76 period—is well considered in Chapter II, citing also Reynolds’s work on Jit. Chapter III considers the prophetic six short stories published in 1970 and introduced by Nidhi Eoseewong in terms of their questioning of Thai society and imaginings of possible futures (p. 85), and then other publications of the 1973-76 era such as Thak’s introduction to a collection of Thammasat University student essays in 1975. There is also a fascinating extended discussion of a book published in 1971 by the VDA documenting its activities in 1969-1971, in which the notes, drawings and poems (one a translation of Mao’s poem “Snow”) inserted between the narrative accounts of trips to the countryside provide a revealing sub-text, and 1971 issues of the Chiangmai University student publication Walanchathat.

The argument in Revolution Interrupted about the threat posed by the transgressive appropriation of the law, along with the emphasis on the continued violence and continued silence about it in the Thai political system, raises urgent regional comparisons with other state systems and systems of justice, such as China’s. Extra-judicial executions have been defined as killings carried on outside the law by, or with the consent of, public officials. Haberkorn writes of Walter Benjamin in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and refers to Abrams (1977) on the nature of state formations, which is all helpful; to articulate the past historically must mean to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”, as Benjamin splendidly put it, and, as Abrams showed, the state is not a monolith, exactly in the way Haberkorn points us. But I note that it was also Benjamin in the same work who, revising Carl Schmitt, first suggested that the “state of exception” might have become the norm, and since the popularity of Agamben’s Homo Sacer it might be said that talking about the state of exception has now become the norm. Now, Flora Sapio’s Sovereign Power and the Law in China: Zones of Exception in the Criminal Justice System, has built on Agamben’s insights to argue that the authorities in China have effectively institutionalized an exception built into the legal system, under which anyone on the streets can be stripped of his or her rights as a citizen and sent to extra-legal camps (Fiskesjö 2012). This forces us to see the “seemingly extra-legal together with the  formally legal” as part of a single institutional apparatus and challenges the assumption that police lawlessness and arbitrary detention are some sort of aberration which will eventually disappear as a more perfect rule of law develops (Fiskesjö 2011). “A zone of lawlessness is part of the legal order”, says Sapio (p. 3). This may be the other, more gloomy and pessimistic, side of the coin to Haberkorn’s vision of an enlightened future. The question that she raises half-way through the book, “What was the nature of the relationship, official and unofficial, between state actors and often violent parastate groups?” (p. 133), which Bowie (1997) also sought to address, is therefore truly crucial for the contemporary as well as for the historical. In that sense the book may resonate with others on the southern violence (for example, McCargo 2008) and on lese majesté (for instance Streckfuss 2011).

Nicholas Tapp is Professor in the Department of Sociology at East China Normal University, Shanghai, and Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University, Canberra.


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About Nicholas Tapp (Guest Contributor)