AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 313

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Session 313: Land, Rivers, and Villagers: New Research on Rural Politics in Southeast Asia - Sponsored by Southeast Asia Council

Organizer and Chair: Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Australian National University, USA

Discussant: Jennifer Franco, Independent Scholar, Netherlands

Rural areas are the heartlands of most Southeast Asia countries, producing rice, fish, and other food products to feed nations and providing the work forces in many factories, offices, and households within the region and far beyond. Rural areas are also the foci for many national and international development projects, locations of strategic and often contested resources, and frequent sites of political upheaval. This panel features new research on rural politics in Southeast Asia. The four paper presenters are scholars who have done in-depth study in the region. Each scholar has a country of specialization but analyzes with an eye to comparing particular findings to knowledge about other parts of the region. Each examines a different rural political dynamic: land reform in the lowlands of Indonesia with comparisons to recent agrarian reforms in neighboring countries, migration and the politics of land and forests in mountainous areas of Vietnam with comparisons to Indonesia, agrarian-based protests in Thailand and their relevance to democratization elsewhere, and the significance of rivers to state formations in the region. Illustrating the generational breadth of scholarship on rural Southeast Asia, the presenters range from Professor James C. Scott to Assistant Professors Pamela McElwee and Yoshinori Nishizaki to Ph.D. Candidate Noer Fauzi Rachman. The well-established scholar Jennifer C. Franco will draw from her extensive study of rural politics in the Philippines when commenting on the papers.

Struggle over Land and Land Policy in Contemporary Indonesia
Noer Fauzi Rachman, Bogor Agricultural University, Indonesia

This paper examines how agrarian movements and land reform policy in contemporary Indonesia have been mutually constituted, through the movements successes and setbacks. The movements’ objectives over time have both conflicted with and merged with the politics and practices of the National Land Agency of the Indonesian government. Such tension, interaction, and convergence have rendered incomplete the projects of both reform and anti-reform. Using this Indonesian experience and some comparisons to similar situations elsewhere in Southeast Asia, I argue that state-society interactions regarding redistributive land reform articulate at multiple and interconnected sites of struggle, and ultimately they contribute to legitimizing and/or delegitimizing the existing structure governing land accesses. I will critically and ethnographically demonstrate how the exercise of power on the ground is constituted by multiple actors and forces at different levels and discourses. The paper will trace how the actors and forces are produced, the trajectories they have made, and the circumstances that enable or constrain them to be influential. The purpose is to understand, as Stuart Hall formulates it, “how they work, what their limits and possibilities are, what they can and cannot accomplish.” (Hall 2007:280). [Hall, Stuart. 2007. “Epilogue: Through the Prism of an Intellectual Life,” in Culture, Politics, Race, and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall, ed. Brian Meeks (Kingston, Jamaica: Randle. Pp. 269-291.

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same: How rural uplands have been transformed by migration, forest conservation and land tenure policy in Vietnam and Indonesia
Pamela McElwee, Rutgers University, USA

While the 21st century has been proclaimed the ‘urban century’, rural politics remain strong in Southeast Asia, although the struggles within rural landscapes have been shifting terrain, particularly in the past 20 years. Some of these rural transformations include significant population shifts, as some people move to cities and others move to or around in the countryside. An increasingly important factor of change has been tighter restrictions on land use, often implemented as conservation, watershed protection, or reforestation policies (most recently as carbon preservation, climate change policies). This paper present results from a comparative study of migration, land tenure and forest politics in the uplands of Vietnam and Indonesia. National projects of migration in the two countries have significantly affected rural environments, although there are important differences in outcomes, and the environmental impacts of different types of migrations (spontaneous, forced and displaced) within and between rural areas can be compared between several field sites in each country. The research has focused on how migrants and long-resident or indigenous people establish means by which to exploit the environment, as well as the conflicts that arise between migrants and existing residents over land. Although our original assumption was that migration was a major impact on environmental quality, other policies like conservation and reforestation projects are having an even more significant effect in all study areas, and the paper will assess the impact of new restrictions on upland lands under REDD projects for carbon mitigation on future rural conflicts.

Not So Colorful: Looking at the Red-Shirt Movement from the Thai Countryside
Yoshinori Nishizaki, National University of Singapore, Singapore

The “red-shirt” movement in Thailand has been commonly depicted in the Thai and international media as a rural-based pro-poor movement intent on toppling the current Democrat Party-led government and on bringing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra back to power. Such media constructions lead us to believe that as beneficiaries of Thaksin’s social welfare and rural development policies, the rural poor, especially farmers, in Thailand’s north and northeast are ideologically united in their support for the red-shirts. I do not reject this characterization, but I suggest that the reality is more complex. For all the size and emotional intensity of the red-shirt movement, the majority of the rural poor are not involved in it. By shedding light on these people, we can gain a new perspective on the movement. Using the cases of two outlying villages in northern and northeastern Thailand, I show that the rural poor display a wide array of views on the red-shirt movement. While some people intensely support the movement and Thaksin, most other people consist of lukewarm supporters, fence-sitters, cynics, or outright opponents. Although the red-shirt leaders characterize and justify their movement as one aimed at addressing the needs of the rural poor, most of the villagers I have talked to see through this framing strategy. They are well aware that the movement is a “front” for just another political struggle waged among the elites. I explore what these findings have to say about the literature on democratization, social movements, and civil society.

Rivers in Southeast Asian History and State-building
James C. Scott, Yale University, USA

Owing to the relative ease of travel over "easy water" compared with overland travel, the classical Southeast Asian kingdoms were, with without exception, located along navigable waterways or at the coast--often both at the same time. Rivers generally served as the highways of commerce, contact and exchange. Linguistic, cultural and religious integration most readily spread along such watercourses and far less readily where the terrain was less accommodating to easy movement. Such rivers vary enormously--in depth, channel, and speed, and flooding, season to season and the states that depend upon them depend, in the same fashion, on the irregular and erratic pulse of the rivers. How have changes in the rivers - dams, deforestation of watersheds, pollution, industrial uses of water – affected the structure of riparian life for fish, birds, flora, mollusks, homo sapiens, and states?