Uneven Development in Thailand in Historical Context

The Uneven Development of Thailand in Historical Context

At the recent International Thai Studies Conference, I spoke about the industrial estates of Thailand (I posted the abstract previously). One of the research questions concerned the extent to which the presence of industrial estates could positively affect the uneven development of the country. Uneven development is a longstanding phenomenon is Thailand. The origin is in the unequal distribution of resources and in the combination of location with particular types of work. The Chiang Mai Chronicle, for example, contains various examples of kings and princes starting wars with a view to obtaining access to skilled artisans within a specific community. Those people who could be captured en masse and relocated to an area close to the throne so as to bolster the economic base. The link, in other words, between place and specific occupation has existed for centuries.

When the occupations concern access to a specific resource, then different villages can still specialize in a particular type of activity. Gijsbert Heeck, in the seventeenth century, described his journeys in the south of Thailand and included (in translation) these passages:


“On the way we passed many large and small villages, hamlets, and other settlements, all the names of which were impossible for us to know. We saw that in some of them there lived none but various types of potters, and in others only cutters of firewood, but most were occupied by farmers who made their living with horses, cows, buffaloes, and pigs, both raising them [for food and the fields] and also to produce and sell milk, butter, and cheese. They also keep many chickens and ducks, though many others have these as well (p.44).”

Some activities are common to all villagers, then, such as basic agricultural practice, while in others ‘various types of potters’ show the degree of specialization in local production. This is emphasized in the following section:

“In some villages there lived only boat-builders, and in some only carpenters or those who had tree nurseries. Since the coconut-palm occurs here abundantly, there were many who made a living from the oil that they derive from it, and large quantities of the oil are traded each year. We also passed a village where only coffins were made; at several of the houses five or six of these stood for sale as finished products (p.45).”

In this case, access to wood has provided a range of different economic possibilities, from trading oil to boat-building to coffin-making. Again, this reinforces the specialization at village level. The advantage of specialization will reside in economies of scope, scale and learning.

However, while specialization occurs at a low level and is prevalent across historical Siam (and probably the whole of the Mekong Region), there were nevertheless distinct differences in regional incomes and development based on geographical and climatic factors, since agriculture was so dominant prior to the second half of the twentieth century. Evidence of this is found in Carle Von Zimmerman’s rural survey of the early 1930s:


—  Average income per family in the areas studied:

—  Central      279 baht*

—  North:        176 baht

—  South :        125 baht

—  Northeast:   83 baht

—  (* estimated at 330 baht before the depression year)

There are definitional issues involved in the areas studied which mean that direct comparison between regions cannot be made with modern counterparts but it is clear that the basic pattern of income inequality remains, as shown by these Gross Provincial Product (amalgamated) per capita figures indicate:

  1997 2000 2005
Bangkok 1,835,518 1,787,456 2,045,505
Vicinity of Bangkok 110,571 115,945 218,716
Central 41,481 69,334 86,460
Eastern 62,686 138,492 137,532
Western 30,382 57,748 49,473
Northeastern 29,324 24,783 39,081
Northern 25,492 38,342 36,241
Southern 30,478 64,954 49,334

It is well established that internal income inequalities have resulted in labour migration, both internally and internationally, as well as contributing to some of the political protests that have coloured modern Thailand.

Hence, the research questions, which include the relevance of industrial estates in affecting regional disparities and the application of specialized knowledge in the modern economy.

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