The Road to Nowhere, or Somewhere?

Thailand’s Doi Pumuen village: gov’t top-down planning and a template for the societal ‘de’ of ‘development’

(This article is part 1 0f 2. Read part 2: Back to the Basics: Can’t Buy This Way of Life)


The purpose of this research is to longitudinally illustrate general, however actual, changes that have taken place throughout one rural Thailand village area from the 1880s until 2016. This is in relation to how government top-down development planning policies, global market influences, and infrastructural development have impacted the communities’ natural environment, socioeconomic conditions and psycho-social functioning. While we will with this analysis somewhat briefly address many aspects of my case study area’s ‘development,’ the underlying premise is that the road now leading to this 135 year-old village area has played a central role in this community area’s transformation, and arguably not for its social betterment.

This research, with road development being a focus point, looks at the ‘de’ of the word ‘development.’ (1) What is development related processes (in relation to capitalism’s tenets of land, capital, and labor) essentially taking away from human culture and our traditional ways of life? (2) What are the societal replacements, and what are the short and potential long-term impacts? (3) Finally, what can possibly be done particularly in the early stages of (community) planning to mitigate development related, perhaps socially detrimental, phenomena?

A reason for focusing on Thailand in these regards is because this country, according to Kelly, Yutthaphonphinit, Seubsman, and Sleigh (2012), “has often been deemed a model (for studying planning and development) because it has retained much of its cultural traditions while adopting development practices that have succeeded economically and lifted the nation from its poor agrarian background to become a modern industrialized Southeast Asian state. Moreover, especially since the disruptions caused by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand is further evolving from post-WWII top-down (industrial) development practices to more bottom-up (participatory) development ideals. Thailand is also further decentralizing its political operations and therefore its planning practices” (1). The Thai military, however, established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which as of September 2016 is/was sternly governing the nation.

I am proposing that more traditional world cultures, particularly those of rural indigenous peoples whose communities represent a nature intrinsic to us all, can serve as a contemporary social-scientific measurement of how societies across the globe have been and are being core affected by modern development related phenomena. I maintain that for this concept the longitudinal transformation of the Pumuen village serves as a case study model.

Pumuen Village: A Case Study for the ‘De’ of Development

Map of my entire research area (2011–2016), including Pumuen case study.

The primary village area studied and used for this research is Pumuen Nai village. It is a 50-household, 250-person community comprised of Lahu Na (Black Lahu) people. It was established in the 1970s and is located in northern Thailand’s Fah Hom Pok National Park. This park area is located in far northern Fang District in Chiang Mai Province not far from the Burma-Myanmar border. It is also home to the second highest mountain peak in Thailand.

Pumuen Nai is positioned nearby another Lahu settlement called, Pumuen Nok, comprised of the Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu) people, who were the first to inhabit this area around 1880. Villagers are originally from Tibet and China and immigrated to this location via Myanmar. While this study generally covers the entire village area’s 135-year history, Pumuen Nai (Black Lahu) village is the primary focus.

The Lahu people living here are marginalized indigenous peoples who are not considered Thai citizens and therefore have no or few social rights. They are essentially only permitted to reside in the country and be subject to State policies. They have for decades experienced top-down Thai government directed development directives and with minimal involvement in development related decision making processes; they just have to follow the rules. Changes within this community’s perceptions, behaviors, and ultimately their livelihoods have ensued.

The approach and the extent to which the Pumuen community area has received ‘professional leadership’ and ‘access to resources’ supposedly synonymous with top-down development initiatives (Larrison. 1999) is likewise questionable. Whereas, for the sake of this planning study, “‘bottom-up’ development practices involve ‘comprehensive community participation’ that motivates communities to expand their opportunities, improve local resource management, increase communication and engagement and interchange, and localize financial access” (Larrison. 1999, 68).

Background:development;’ its essential beginning with road construction and market access

“The term for ‘development’ in Thai, kaan phatthana, covers a broad range of general ‘improvements’ in the welfare of society. In the discourse of development at the district and village level, it is often equated with ‘prosperity.’ This concept is associated with development of communications, material comforts, and the cash economy. It is very much a consumerist, urban-oriented side of development…State-led rural development programs provide the key to State entry into the village via institutions governing many domains of life, and they do so within the ethos of development as a process by which the village benefits by becoming part of national modernization.

The contradiction inherent in the process stems from unequal power relations between what was ‘State’ and what was ‘village,’ a power gap that is being shifted and absorbed into the village itself. A key point is that this contradiction is obscured by a particular development discourse that has emanated from these programs, and aspects of this discourse are now treated briefly in the form of selected lexical items” (Hirsch. 1989, 50).

Dominique Van De Walle in her 2002 paper, “Choosing Rural Road Investments to Help Reduce Poverty,” maintains that “A vocal group of rural road enthusiasts has claimed that rural roads result in significant social benefits. These benefits are difficult to quantify, and this has led to longstanding biases against rural road projects and that (since the poor are primarily rural) there are biases against pro-poor investments. The general consensus is that with the road comes the eventual flow of important social benefits. However, unfortunately there is little convincing empirical evidence that rural roads affect social outcomes beyond what they would have been without the road…Measuring the benefits of rural roads is fraught with difficulty. Special selection and appraisal criteria for rural roads have evolved that simply assume important social benefits, despite a general lack of rigorous empirical evidence. Although the argument that high social benefits will ensue (as a result of the road) is sometimes plausible, the evidence provided in justification is rarely so. Without better evidence, there can be no presumption that such benefits will be high or even positive” (575).

That said, my research paper aims to fill parts of this gap. People, all living beings for this matter, respond to their environment. Changes in infrastructure alter relationships amongst ourselves and with our natural world. I argue that with the benefits of rural development (e.g. improved socioeconomic conditions, ‘education,’ improved sanitary conditions, etc.), particularly with good road access comes a gamete of resulting modernity and commercialism related social issues (e.g. social stratification, materialism, increased use or overuse of natural resources, dissolving of traditional culture practices, drug addiction, social division and conflict, etc.).

Looking at this development/modernity concept from the viewpoint of a global development continuum, I am suggesting that global development is as one phenomenon and with different world regions (and the human communities within them) at different points on this continuum (i.e. the global North and South). This myriad of what I maintain are economic development related (environmenal and socially degrading) phenomena is essentially dissolving the social fabric of humanity, particularly rural communities, which can represent a nature intrinsic to us all. Materially driven modernity is likewise perforating the social fabric of the ‘developing world’ and replacing rural cultural essences with that of a homogenizing modern world culture. These processes in the developing world have long since happened in ‘developed’ world areas (e.g. the West).

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

While taking a somewhat critical stance on development in general, this research uses cross-section data analysis from previous academic studies. It also encompasses five years of my in-field observations while living in Thailand (2011–2016), and in-depth interviews of key stakeholders such as villagers, government officers, and a lead researcher from a Thai university who was working in the study area.

This research applies to the concept of the nation State, which is a territorial political community with an independent and organized government, which “its relations with its subjects are to some extent stable and include respective responsibilities. Our definition (of State) therefore does not include tribal peoples, without a defined territory or written legal system, even though they may have a tribal chief…A nation state is a State whose primary loyalty is to a cultural self-identity, which we call a nation or nationality” (Pick. 2011, 5).

As a context for study, the indigenous peoples living in Thailand (ten ethnicities totaling about one million people) including the Pumuen villages area — with the 1930s government creation of “Thainess,” which is essentially an anti-communist sociopolitical movement — have been being systematically assimilated into the Thai State by means of institutional policies and predominantly top-down planning and development processes.

The primary theoretic voices I include in this analysis are that of Hirsch (1989), who did his PhD fieldwork in 1984–5 in Ban Mai village in southern Thailand. Hirsch brings to this conversation thoughts about Thai state-village relations. Hirsch is quite critical of the Thai State’s development related motives. He essentially accentuates the idea of the nation State and how rural peoples become subject to “an implied sense of citizen-belonging in the State, and they become subjects versus objects to State policy.” The true purpose of rural development according to Hirsch is “to establish an increasing monopoly in terms of legitimacy of State institutions.” Hirsch’s work suggests that the ‘penetration’ of the State into rural areas like Pumuen is really about capitalist surplus extraction versus for the supposed betterment of rural communities.

Ouyyanont (2012) establishes a foundation for my case study. He talks about Thailand prior to its more full engagement in the post WWII global market system. This is important because around the time that the Pumuen area was established in the late 1800s (when what is now Thailand was Siam), a high percentage of the country’s population was living in rural areas, with limited industrialization and urbanization being prominent. That was much different than modern-day Thailand.

Preston and Ngah (2012) bring references of their rural development related work in Malaysia. They for the sake of my study establish a comparative regional view to a global development continuum. Preston and Ngah say that rural development is seen as a varied series of responses to the formerly dominant model of modernization, which are complex in that they take place at various levels, involve multiple actors, and create or arise with the emergence of new practices, and new social and economic networks. Preston and Ngah talk about people movement from the rural to urban, the societal impacts of this, and how communities adapt and create new forms of culture and economy.

Crooker (2005) talks of Thailand’s “steadfast commitment” to opium reduction in northern Thailand. He addresses how “hill tribes,” like Pumuen, were for a time a focus of strong interest by the international news media and foreign governments in terms of opium production. However, what was (and remains) hidden largely from view are the poverty-related social problems such as drug trafficking, heroin addiction, prostitution, and AIDS that are prominent as a result of a post-opium rural countryside — more specifically, from my view, as a result of development and related social stratification.

Olsson (2008) says that the theory is a road improvement will lead to direct community benefits. However, the direct and indirect benefits are determined by context. Olsson says that development implies a structural shift, where a new social and technical environment or a new set of economic opportunities emerges, and the pattern of relationships between the environment and social actors changes.

Bryceson, Bradbury and Bradbury (2008) say that in early modernization theory, roads were considered to be an important catalyst of economic development, that physical isolation sustains poverty and accentuates vulnerability, and that rural road investment is logically assumed to alleviate the poverty associated with spatial isolation. They address the idea that infrastructural investment, with road projects being exceptionally prominent, are a “double-edged nature of mobility improvement.”

Shigetomi (1992), who has studied village communities in rural Thailand, says that the impact of the market economy on rural villages has subjected them to significant changes. Shigetomi says that each farming household as an economic unit increases its degree of dependence on the buying and selling of commodities.

This has changed the way villagers interact with one another, creating what Shigetomi refers to as ‘market’ and ‘cooperative’ transactions — the former being about profit and the latter being more about long-term benefits of social unity and communal relationships

Kelly, Yutthaphonphinit, Seubsman, and Sleigh (2012) say that Thailand has often been deemed a model (for studying planning and development) because it has retained much of its cultural traditions while adopting development practices. These authors address the supposed changing of the Thai government’s status quo top-down development policies to that of being more bottom-up and grass roots. Kelly, Yutthaphonphinit, Seubsman, and Sleigh say that development experience over many decades in Thailand has revealed that community learning and empowerment is most effective when the process is truly participatory. Primary challenges with grass roots movements has been the country’s centralized bureaucracy, with the powers at be “reluctant to devolve power over decision making.”

Dominique Van De Walle (2002) brings to the discussion a skeptical view of whether the road to a rural community really does result in significant social benefits. The general consensus is that with the road comes the eventual flow of important social benefits. However, unfortunately there is little convincing empirical evidence that rural roads affect social outcomes beyond what they would have been without the road. Measuring the benefits of rural roads is fraught with difficulty.

Promburom has been and remains my primary research colleague and contact source. Ms. Promburom was at the time of doing my research the lead researcher at Chiang Mai University’s (CMU) Business Faculty. She has deep insight into the changes that have taken place in the Pumuen villages area over the past 135 years. Promburom holds a Masters Degree in agricultural systems, with interests in the research areas of socioeconomics, perspectives in gender roles, natural resource management, and sustainable tourism. She has fifteen years of experience working with indigenous communities located in northern Thailand’s highland (“hill tribe”) and lowland (Thai) areas. Promburom primarily focuses on community based tourism development, with emphasis on culture preservation through community empowerment.

Pumuen’s top-down development story: first, a subsistence way of life, opium, the Chinese Army, creation of the Thai Royal Forest Department, migration of the Black Lahu to this area, and new cash crops

Figure 1: Cross-section longitudinal transformation analysis of the case study area

It is perhaps reasonable to say that Pumuen’s development can be divided into three periods in terms of villagers’ way of life: 1) subsistence/primitive: freedom of resources-use before prominent law of the nation State; 2) modern (capitalism); and 3) post-modern (post WWII): transnational modernization via State-directed internal investment.

The Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu) emigrated from Burma to this village area in the early 1880s. They lived their traditional ways of life that of subsistence, slash and burn farming techniques. Villagers grew upland rice and other vegetables; they as well hunted and gathered food from the jungle forest. They lived a life relatively free of outside influences or interaction with the Thai central government. It is being assumed here that any community planning at that time was done so in a culturally traditional manner (i.e. village leadership structure) and with no or minimal Thai government participation.

Ouyyanont (2012) says that Thailand (called ‘Siam’ in 1880 and was so until 1939) was fairly autonomous in terms of its engagement in the world economy. However, “from the mid-Nineteenth Century, Thailand’s economy was increasingly shaped by international developments and drawn into the world economy through migration, above all through the arrival of many thousands of Chinese after the 1880s” (44). While this didn’t have much impact on the villagers of Lahu Nyi at that time, this migration would become more prominent in ensuing years. What is important is to again accentuate the fact that Thailand at that time was becoming evermore engaged in the global market system and related affairs. This was also resulting in social transformation within the country.

In the late 1800s, there certainly was no electricity in Lahu Nyi (red Lahu) village, and the only roadway connecting villagers to the urban lowland areas was a narrow trail carved through the thick forest that was passable on-foot or via horses and donkeys. Opium and maize were grown and used as cash crops. These goods were traded in the lowland areas and for life necessities such as chili and salt.

Villagers also used the opium being grown in the Pumuen area as a recreational feel-good drug as well as for traditional medicine. Buffaloes and cows (sustained via the surrounding forest) comprised the commercial animals.

For decades this way of life supported the village area’s primary economic system of bartering. Villagers lived fairly autonomously from central Thai government regulations, and reportedly social harmony within the village was prominent (Promburom. 2011). However, this would change.

Thailand’s economy before 1940 was marked by remarkably low long-term real economic growth, unusually high levels of the population living in rural areas, and limited industrialization and urbanization (Ouyyanont. 2012). The Thai government therefore hadn’t much desire, need, or means — let alone in a highland forest watershed area — to regulate the lifestyles of the Lahu villagers living in this area, and particularly in relation to their use of natural resources. However, in the early 1940s a Chinese War was taking place throughout the region. The Chinese Army moved into this national border area and further cultivated opium and brewed whiskey for income. The Thai government, which did not have a prominent presence in the area at that time, desired to oust the Chinese. In 1945, the Thai military granted the leader of the Red Lahu village, Mr. Taeng Tao, a status ranking of “muen.” Pu in Thai means “old man,” hence the now formal name of the second village and the focus of this research project: Pumuen (Promburom. 2011).

The Thai government established a Thai Royal Forest Department office in the area, and border (military) police were patrolling the Pumuen area by 1952. They watched for further Chinese presence and at the same time further developed plans to eradicate opium from Thailand’s highland areas. The Lahu here were also under the military’s watchful eye, particularly with villagers’ forest activities (e.g. hunting, fishing, as well as gathering forest food, medicine, and firewood). The Thai government needed to further make a good relationship with the Red Lahu, who were needed as a barrier to fight or chase out the Chinese Army. This is a key time regarding the development of this area. Perhaps most importantly, although the Lahu villagers may have stood proudly while being noticed and made useful by the Thai government and military, they had no choice otherwise. They did and arguably had to do what the Thai government directed (Promburom. 2011). Villagers were now being used as a rural extension of the Thai government, and the link between the upland and lowland worlds had more formally ensued.

In 1960, a group of Pumuen villagers was flown by military helicopter to the coastal town of Hua Hin in Thailand’s South. This was to meet and discuss with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) about the future of the Pumuen area. The Thai government had a strategy related to this communication and partnership with the Lahu: put the “hill tribe people” on the front line of both the country’s rural political operations as well as with rural development as the country was industrializing. I have yet to confirm whether this came as part of Thailand’s royally sponsored Village Scout movement, the military National Defense Volunteers, or membership of district or provincial volunteer brigades.

Philip Hirsch did rural development related PhD fieldwork in 1984–5 in Ban Mai village in southern Thailand. Hirsch, who writes quite critically of the Thai State’s development related motives in his 1989 article, “State in the Village: Interpreting Rural Development in Thailand,” said “The discourse of rural development contains much that deals with villagers increasing their share of the fruits of development, their rights, duties, and responsibilities as citizens, and the unity of the Thai people. Implied is a sense of belonging, of the village as an integral part of the State, of villagers as subjects rather than objects of State policy, of farmers as the ‘backbone’ of the nation. Yet by the same token, the official discourse of nation, religion and Monarchy is reinforced by physical and institutional accessibility afforded by schemes falling under the rural development aegis to establish an increasing monopoly in terms of legitimacy of State institutions and procedures affecting the everyday social and economic life of village and villagers. In other words, just as State-led rural development in principle gives village and villagers access to the material and political resources of the State, with all the implications for citizen participation, modernization, and perhaps democratization, so the State is moving into the village. The latter move is through reformed (or co-opted?) village institutions as well as by facilitation of entry by state officials” (41).

That said, the Thai State Park Act was ratified in 1961 (placing Pumuen village further under State authority). This came in unison with a countrywide political security and development program throughout all of northern Thailand’s highland areas (and beyond). By 1965, a Thai school, run by the Thai border police, was built and operational in Pumuen Nok (red Lahu) village. This happened particularly as planning for The Royal Project, a non-profit organization founded in 1969 and masterminded by King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) to ‘solve the problems of deforestation, poverty and opium production’ by promoting alternative crops in Thailand, was underway (Promburom. 2011). The premise was and remains to replace the opium being grown in Thailand’s mountainous regions with alternative cash crops such as cabbage, lettuce, kidney beans, tea, fruits, coffee, peaches, apples, herbs, and decorative flowers.

In 1970, Rama IX and other members of the Royal family visited the Pumuen area to observe the development progress, while also offering plant and animal stocks such as lychee, plum, chickens and other agricultural products. While this all may seem well-intended, Hirsch (1989) says that “Recent history of Thai state-village relations have been marked by a shift from large-scale rural neglect in a context of rapid urban-dominated growth to an apparent concern to spread the material fruits of development and involve the rural populace in national affairs by means of an accelerated State-led rural development program” (36). The Royal Project could perhaps be an example.

Hirsch (1989) further maintains that State involvement in and commercial penetration of the countryside have operated in tandem, facilitating or establishing new modes of surplus extraction (Higgott and Robison, 1985). In the Thai case, Hirsch said that “increasing agricultural production and surplus has mainly been a process of expanding agricultural land area, rather than of generating additional surplus by capitalization of agriculture in existing cultivated areas, and this has been at the expense of forested areas. Such a tendency has led to the common emphasis on the geographical rather than technological frontier in describing change in Thai agriculture in a period of rapid economic and population growth. This has placed penetration of State and capital in rather a different context than in more typical green revolution situations elsewhere” (Ingram, 1971; IBRD, 1983; Hirsch. 1989, 37).

Hirsch’s work suggests that the ‘penetration’ of the State into the Pumuen area is really about capitalist surplus extraction versus for the supposed betterment of rural communities. He says, “It is not simply the existence of a large forest land resource that accounts for peculiarities of the Thai case. Expansion into forest areas has also taken place due to marginalization of populations in older agricultural areas (for example through debt foreclosure), demands of the world market during the early 1970s for crops suited for upland areas (such as maize, tapioca, and sugar-cane, [or tea]) that provide substantial foreign exchange earnings, and State enterprise exploitation of valuable timber reserves under concession. Meanwhile, the nature of settlement of forest areas is such as to produce a rapid evolution from isolated subsistence communities to villages whose internal differentiation is increasingly determined by capitalist relations of production and that are subject to a high level of State attention” (cf. Collins, 1986; De Koninck and McTaggart, 1987; Hirsch. 1989, 37).

Ecological conditions are such that early planting of subsistence crops mixed with commercial field crops soon gives over to a largely commercial village agricultural economy. The deterioration of forest soils, which is prominent in other areas of northern Thailand [but not so in Pumuen] particularly where deforestation and upland rice is prominent [such as in northern Thailand’s town of Nan area], means that agricultural production depends increasingly on purchased inputs (e.g. fertilizer, equipment, and hired labor). State interest in these areas is aroused partly by their political sensitivity, as evidenced by their ‘border’ status irrespective of proximity to the national frontier” (Hirsch. 1989, 37). Again, Pumuen village is near the Burma border.

In 1972, Rama IX again visited Pumuen. This was to initiate a tea planting pilot project led by Pumuen villager, Jafa Chaikor. Jafa could speak both Thai and Chinese, so he quickly, with a personal connection with King Rama IX, became a prominent contact for the Thai government. Tea stocks came from Doi Wawee in Chiang Rai about 120 km. away from Pumuen.

In 1978, the Black Lahu immigrated from Burma to this area and established, next to the Red Lahu (animist) village, Pumuen Nai village. Three households began their work on the tea farms and collecting wood as Jafa’s hired labor. By 1980, opium was eradicated from the area, the Christian church in Pumuen Nai was built, and the village by 1982 had grown to twenty households. Tea became, and continues being, the primary cash crop of Pumuen Nai village.

The Pumuen area was ‘developing.’ This transformation to tea becoming Pumuen villagers’ primary cash crop drastically progressed the area in-terms of its development. The area’s economy and related social functioning was now prominently operating on this new system (i.e. cash economy, versus bartering). As of 2013, it had been 30 years since poppy plants were last seen blanketing this area, which is arguably good. However, villagers then began spending their days picking tea and selling it in the lowland markets, like a wage job — versus living sustainably from the surrounding land (Promburom. 2011).

“Rural development is seen as a varied series of responses to the formerly dominant model of modernization, which are complex in that they take place at various levels, involve multiple actors and create or arise with the emergence of new practices and new social and economic networks” (Preston and Ngah. 2012, 352–353).

Fine. However, this supposed government support to Pumuen in terms of policy and infrastructure began having a significant impact on Pumuen villagers’ lifestyle. While by the early 1970s there still was no electricity in the village, the walking path that led to the city had been expanded by the Thai forestry department; it was now a dirt road. Some motorcycles existed in the village, and the first car arrived in 1975. While the area seemed to be progressing in its ‘development,’ these phenomena were, and still are, altering peoples’ relationships amongst themselves and with their natural environment. The village was in ways becoming a small town.

Hirsch (1989) seems to imply that there are ulterior motives behind the supposed betterment of rural peoples through development. “Concepts of ‘development’ and ‘participation’ have taken hold as catchwords and have been used in a wide variety of contexts. Meanwhile, the rural development program has afforded the Thai State, through the government Ministries with operations at the district level, increased access to village institutions. This is against a background of rapid spread of capitalist relations in the Thai countryside, which cannot be separated from other more explicitly State inspired facets of rural change (Witayakorn, 1982). The broad range of activities implemented by the State bureaucracy at the district level is generally labeled as ‘rural development’” (36).

This ‘development’ phenomenon was and continues happening throughout northern Thailand’s rural Thai as well as highland indigenous ethnic communities. Meanwhile the popularity of The Royal Project was increasing both domestically and internationally. Internationally, this Project was essentially helping with the West-led ‘drug war,’ expunging the region’s opium production and market (or perhaps moving it to another location). Thai domestically, the “hill tribe people” were believed to be opium growing destroyers of the forest. This propaganda of sorts of was even included in the mainstream Thai education curriculum. Therefore, Rama IX’s royal development program was (and continues) being heralded as the savior of Thailand’s beloved forest areas.

This Thai State mandated transition from opium to tea production in Pumuen was overall really the full onset of the area’s ‘modern development.’ Moreover, the Royal Project in these regards is arguably the means for the country’s social homogenization into a State of ‘Thainess.’ The rural folks exist on its societal margins. Crooker (2005) talks of Thailand’s “steadfast commitment” to opium reduction in northern Thailand. From one viewpoint, villages like Pumuen “no longer sell opium to local warlords or lowland drug traffickers. They live in permanent settlements, grow legitimate cash crops, and have a stake in participating in Thai society. However, their overall environmental deterioration threatens their livelihoods, and tribal people constitute the poorest socioeconomic strata” (292).

Focus comes to the expanded road, links with the city; out goes the free collecting of forest food, and traditional ways of life

Again, in the 1970s the only travel means linking Pumuen village with the lowland areas was first a narrow trail and then a dirt road, nearly impassable during the rainy season. If villagers wanted to get to the nearest town of Fang, and hence to the market at which they could sell their cash crops, they used horses or walked. Generally, en route they had to stay overnight in the forest. Although there was motorcycle transport, only the Royal Thai Forest Department officials had them at that time. While the lack of road access largely inhibited villagers’ capacity for economic development, this situation also served as a buffer of sorts to the ways of the modern world, contributing to a cultural preservation of sorts.

Hirsch (1989) says, “‘development’ comes with the implicit notion that prosperity lies in an urban lifestyle or at least proximity to such. This aspect helps obscure the double-faceted implications of, for example, road building or increased credit as instruments of rural development” (51). Whereas, Olsson (2009) says, “The theory is that a road improvement will lead to direct effects in the form of reduced journey time, reduced costs, and improved reliability. The benefits from these effects will in particular be passed on to previous road users, passengers and companies. The anticipation is further that these will lead to beneficial effects for the communities affected by the road. The extent to which different households and companies benefit, relocate and/or are established from any given road improvement will depend on a number of indirect effects which are in turn determined by context” (477)

Well, in addition to increased government access to the Pumuen area as a direct result of the expanded road, villagers began more readily transporting their farm goods to the city. They also started visiting other village areas more often (providing opportunities for courtship outside of the village), and also bringing to the village urban world commodities (e.g. processed foodstuffs, which also effected villagers’ diet and overall health). Life was becoming more ‘convenient’ for villagers in terms of life necessities. Convenience, this material fruit of capitalism and modernity, was (and is) for villagers becoming evermore a part of their culture. This urban infiltration had an immediate and proportional effect on villagers,’ creating a mixing of traditional Lahu and mainstream Thai cultures. Villagers began purchasing motorcycles, for example, and other material goods — incurring financial debt for the first time in their history. They were likewise adapting to the lifestyle of working on their farms in order to pay bills, a new form of economic slavery likening that of ‘developed’ world areas.

Pumuen villagers for necessary income also started taking jobs in the city. Preston and Ngah (2012) confirm this in saying that this phenomenon has also been happening in Malaysia. They reference De Koninck and Ahmat (2012), as they in their studies “summarize the changes affecting the ‘original farming population’ [of rural villages in Malaysia] and found that few now rely on farming as households diversify their livelihood strategies, often involving work away from the village” (355).

Bryceson, Bradbury and Bradbury (2008) in citing the work of Rostow (1962) state that in “early modernization theory, roads were considered to be an important catalyst of economic development” (459). They further say that the power of roads to stimulate development has largely prevailed. However, there is no consensus on precisely how roads become critical to economic development and if they actually do provide as much benefit as believed. More recently, in the context of growing concern with the impoverishing effects of uneven spatial development, rural roads have been accorded an even more ambitious brief, that of poverty reduction…Chambers (1983, 1997) and Minot et al. (2003) maintain, “Physical isolation sustains poverty and accentuates vulnerability. Rural road investment is logically assumed to alleviate the poverty associated with spatial isolation” (459–460).

Much of this rural development has to do with international investment, or perhaps the pressure that governments may experience to invest in rural development projects. Bryceson, Bradbury and Bradbury (2008) state, “World Bank lending, for example, in the 1950s and 1960s was heavily biased worldwide towards infrastructural investment, with road projects being exceptionally prominent. This was the era of belief in the power of roads to ‘bring’ development to remote areas” (461). However, they also state that a succession of field studies beginning in the late 1970s started documenting the realities of rural transport, suggesting that rural road investments had a limited impact on the lives of rural dwellers because the major share of rural travel and transport is bound up in domestic tasks such as water and firewood collection which generally involve walking on off-road paths (Howe and Richards, 1984; Barwell et al., 1985; McCall, 1985; Curtin, 1986; Mehretu and Mutambirwa, 1992; Bryceson and Howe, 1993; Porter, 1995; Fernando and Porter, 2002).

Walking off-road paths may have for decades been the case in Pumuen. However, as part of the area’s (and arguably the world) development continuum, this is just simply not the case in regard to the social impacts being ‘limited.’ The expansion of the road to Pumuen, or any community for this matter, has a direct impact both detrimental and beneficial on the involved communities. The road in my view is the link that Bryceson, Bradbury and Bradbury (2008) suggest is the “double-edged nature of mobility improvement” (478). In rural situations, they say “where long distances are the norm, people are likely to have a strong preference for improved (road) accessibility, which reduces their travel distance to basic services and economic activities rather than seeking to increase the overall distance they travel” (478).

On the other hand, Preston and Ngah (2012) talk about similar rural changes in rural Malaysia in the sense that “increased human mobility which includes movement into, out of and between rural areas (particularly with use of mobile communication systems)…can paradoxically both stimulate and even make unnecessary some physical movement of people. Urban-based children with parents living in rural villages can call to check that they can buy enough durian fruit (for example) to fill their vehicle when they come to visit in order to sell to friends and neighbors on their return to the city, potentially for the benefit of all concerned” (360).


“Convenience is another benefit of development that is supposed to arise out of projects such as road construction or resettlement. The question poses itself, convenience for whom? Not so much for the majority of villagers who have little occasion to leave the village for most of the year and who cannot afford electricity, as for the district and village administration, whose access to village and villagers is increased, and for whom development enhances ‘ease of administration’ and for the owners of transport among the village elite who stand to gain materially” (Hirsch. 1989, 51)

Particularly due to Thai government regulations related to what Pumuen villagers could and could not traditionally do in what had become a protected forest area, a village grocery story was developed, in addition to a daily ‘mobile market.’ Someone from the city operates this mobile market; he in the early morning uses a motorcycle to bring goods (mostly vegetables and occasional special order items, such as ice or whiskey) to the village. With synthetic products coming in from the city, this also has brought about more trash strewn throughout the village area. I have observed that villagers are seemingly unaware that the glass and plastic won’t deteriorate, as did their food’s previously organic wrappings, such as banana leaves.

Villagers were (and are) now depending more on this new market system, buying things that they used to grow such as rice and vegetables. Villagers were (and are) becoming increasingly dependent on the timely arrival of the mobile market as well. “It hence has become easier for villagers to get stuff because they sometimes became lazy to go to the forest and collect food,” said Promburom, in an interview with me. A villager said to me in interview, “Natural food such as fish is more delicious. However, I cannot (now) go fishing every day.” Furthermore, the effort formerly required to travel into the city, particularly when there was not a good road, naturally resulted in villagers being more mindful of their use and hence conserving more. Conservation in these rural areas is necessary for survival. This all changes with ‘development.’ Convenience becomes the behavioral drug of choice. Moreover, villagers now versus maintaining high skill in hunting and gathering local food have become more dependent on the enticing elements of modernity.

So with this new market system, villagers pick tea during the day versus living traditionally off from the land. They transport it to the city market in the evening. This generates immediate expendable income, an addicting short-time reward for their hard day’s work. Pumuen villagers by the mid-70s were likewise at the more advanced beginning of being ‘busy,’ that of daily life working on the farm. This was (and remains) alike having a day job at a factory.

They now exchange their time for money versus spending their days living traditional ways of life. Just as in mainstream global (developed) societies, there arose the social situation of having far less time for their spiritual practices, for taking care of their children, for passing on indigenous knowledge (e.g. about traditional medicine, music, textiles creation, etc.) through oral tradition is arguably a major factor in why their traditional cultures are vanishing.

Shigetomi (1992), who has studied village communities in rural Thailand, says that the impact of the market economy on rural villages has subjected them to significant changes. “This means essentially that each farming household as an economic unit increases its degree of dependence on the buying and selling of commodities. The changes that come about involve people ceasing their cooperative mutual relationships and related functions, and the individual households are placed into competition in order to cope with changes in their economic environment.

This change is not unidirectional toward the dissolution of cooperative unity. The most significant impact has been the vanishing of abundant forestland, and the commercialization of labor. This has removed the need for some types of cooperative labor activities [e.g. families helping each other with the rice harvest], while also creating new forms of cooperation” [e.g. perhaps one household has a vehicle and shares the transportation of agricultural goods to the market] (154). This situation is a melding of what Shigetomi refers to as ‘market’ and ‘cooperative’ transactions — the former being about profit and the latter being more about long-term benefits of social unity and communal relationships. Shigetomi’s theory runs parallel that of my observations in Pumuen.

Preston and Ngah (2002) refer to the ‘rapid development’ and case studies of rural agrarian change in Malaysia, which they maintain is a country that is rarely referenced in recent debate about rural change in Southeast and East Asia. They reference Ploeg and Renting (2004) as they “imaginatively conceptualize rural changes as ‘broadening’ — diversifying on-farm activities including helping to manage the immediate natural environment — and ‘deepening’ in focusing on quality (often organic) production. Both emphasize localities of production and the use of shorter market supply chains or ‘regrounding,’ involving existing social networks in communities to facilitate the inclusion of nonfarm work into the household economy and developing new activities using skills less dependent on urban proximity. There may also be newcomers in rural communities who take up farming or engage in new rural-based activities. This view of rural change incorporates the viewpoint of those based in rural areas while, at the same time, recognizing the major national and global economic and political influences on rural change” (353).

In Pumuen, national and global economic and political influences (i.e. the global market system) was definitely beginning to evermore effect villagers in the sense that they were emulating city life, taking jobs in the city, inter-marrying across villages and ethnicities, and buying things from their neighbors with cash money. Due to the road, teenagers, for example, could now ride their motorcycles to other villages; whereas, they used to stay in their own village more. This also increased their access to alcohol and other drugs (and comparing themselves to other perhaps more economically well-off areas), which could be argued is a byproduct of urbanization.

Land ownership (or lack thereof), poverty, and necessary migration to other areas

Olsson (2009) talks about the relationship between the direct and indirect effects of development by citing Garrison and Souleyrette (1996). They theorize, “Transport improvement stimulates and enables, rather than creates, innovations (companion innovations) outside the transport sector, as it allows old things to be done in new ways and new things to emerge. In turn, these companion innovations drive social and economic advances…As pointed out by Lakshmanan and Chatterjee (2005), long-term changes in scale, composition, and location of economic activities induced by transport investments are more like development effects than growth effects. Development implies a structural shift, where a new social and technical environment or a new set of economic opportunities emerges, and the pattern of relationships between the environment and social actors changes” (477).

In this sense, due to all of these government top-down development directives Pumuen villagers now were legally forced to adhere to land use limitations, were not allowed to grow the upland rice that is the staple of their diet, hunt (legally), or collect their natural medicine. They could be arrested (and many have been) if found doing the forest activities that they once did as part of traditional Lahu life. Furthermore, villagers were essentially forced into using Western allopathic medicine via government mandated child registration, which became mandatory in order to receive their Thai ID cards. While there are certainly benefits for villagers receiving ‘education’ and health care, this registration requirement also continues having a culturally altering impact on the practice of traditional (animist) medicine (and its practitioners) and particularly in the Red Lahu village.

Thailand’s indigenous peoples such as the Lahu of Pumuen were and continue to be systematically assimilated into the mainstream Thai system, one law at a time. “I discovered that when the government, the Forestry Department, came and they set up the area as a national park, zoning the land, this also had a large impact on villagers and their cultures,” said Promburom, in an interview with me. “Villagers who had a farm in this area used to live fairly freely in-terms of land usage. However, with the establishment of the Forestry Department, villagers were now granted limited space to farm. Village communities were no longer allowed to migrate to other areas or use various tracts of land for traditional slash and burn shift cultivation farming techniques.”

Promburom reiterated that all of these issues related to land resources had a profound effect on villagers’ ways of life and cultural traditions. Promburom (2011) reported that by 1977 traditional handicrafts practices, such as with silver, were completely gone from the Pumuen village area. The silversmith, for example, moved to another village because of land shortages. Actually, land scarcity was the main reason for Pumuen area villagers to emigrate to other villages such as Huay Born, Nong Pai and Pong Hai villages in Fang district. Many of these people, whose ancestors came from other countries such as China or Myanmar, had again become displaced, even after their families had for a century lived in the Pumuen area.

Preston and Ngah (2002) emphasize that “deagrarianization as a concept does recognize the decline in the importance of farming as a part of household livelihoods. This filters into other aspects of village life. It is one element of a relatively longstanding and widespread rural change process” (361). Pumuen villages’ change process resulting from the road (i.e. access to and from “the outside world,” as Pumuen villagers refer to it) has yet to involve any ‘bottom-up’ processes. Yet, as Kelly, Yutthaphonphinit, Seubsman, and Sleigh point out in their 2012 article, “Development Policy in Thailand: From Top-down to Grass Roots,” the “most effective development processes in Thailand have historically been those which rely on the least amount of outside promotion and the most organic spontaneity in the creation of community development groups” (11).

Social Shift: Pumuen’s full transition from subsistence to cash crops, modernity, and busyness; effects of the Thai school, lowland education, and social disorder

The building of the Thai school in Pumuen Nok (Red Lahu) village, the Thai mainstream education overall has had a significant influence on the Pumuen community, both negatively and positively. While children have the opportunity to travel the road — including for those village youth who receive the chance to study, if it really is a chance to go beyond the village boundaries and study in the city, resulting in a cultural de-education of sorts — and learn to read and write Thai (at which many aren’t successful), “The village children who have a chance to go to the city also learn about city life,” said Promburom, in an interview with me. “This has greatly effected the village traditions and changed villagers’ attitudes, which has had an impact on the new generations, particularly on culture preservation in terms of the Lahu way of life.”

Dominique Van De Walle in her 2002 article, “Assessing the Excluded Benefits from Rural Roads,” said “recognizing the possibility that some potentially important benefits arising from rural roads are not included by conventional methods of measuring benefits. There have been efforts to quantify social gains and add them to transport cost savings. For example, in attributing education gains it has been assumed that better road access will increase enrollments by an amount derived from mean national rates. Previously non-attending children are assumed to complete school, and their life-time earnings are predicted based on a comparison of earnings for educated and non-educated individuals nationally. Total additional earnings, appropriately reduced to take account of the costs of education, are then added into the road benefits measure. Such methods require strong assumptions. Implicitly, road access is treated as the sole constraint to children attending school. Yet, there could be a host of contributing reasons that may in turn partly explain why that particular road had not previously been built. Demand for schooling could be low as a result of high local poverty and the opportunity cost of children’s time. Alternatively, there may be cultural reasons keeping girls away, the returns to education may be perceived to be low, or the quality of the school and teaching may be affecting the schooling decision” (579).

In the case of Pumuen, indeed the road expansion from a trail to a road passable by four-wheeled vehicle enabled the construction of the Thai school, and hence a direct injection of mainstream Thai society and its institutions (supporting Hersch’s theories about the primary purpose of rural development). Most people would maintain that education is good for villagers, right? However, the children in Pumuen are allowed to attend the (greatly underfunded) Thai school only until they are 13 years-old. The primary limitation for Pumuen youth is the finances required for them to travel beyond the village and further attend school in the lowlands. Therefore, especially in recent years, many of Pumuen’s youth are essentially forced to remain in the village and tend to the family tea farm (the ‘opportunity cost’ that De Walle mentions). They then have a rudimentary education enough that they have been exposed to a mainstream Thai education but not enough so that they can evolve beyond their socioeconomic status. They become, in Thailand, base functional. This essentially renders them lost between two paradigms of existence. Hence, the youth in Pumuen can now be observed (or hidden) hanging out on the village periphery, drinking alcohol or consuming yaba (i.e. methamphetamine), meaning “crazy drug” in Thai. This social marginalization phenomenon is also evident in the adult population, who are also sort of trapped in their circumstances. In 2016, a villager in an interview with me reported that over half of the village (especially the youth), with little hope of moving beyond the village, is now drug-addicted.

“Development projects in (Thailand’s) northern highlands replaced opium with alternative cash crops and reduced opium production to a trickle during the final decades of the 20th century. When they were cultivating the illicit drug, Thailand’s hill tribes were a focus of strong interest by the international news media and foreign governments. To an informed observer visiting a hill tribe village, it is clear that the new “opium-free” economy is barely functioning in Thailand’s northern highlands. Additionally, hidden largely from view are poverty-related social problems such as drug trafficking, heroin addiction, prostitution, and AIDS” (Crooker. 2005, 289).

This I maintain is a humanitarian disaster within itself — cultivating for villagers an identity crisis of sorts. No wonder most of the youth no longer see the value of maintaining their cultural traditions. Rhetorically speaking, where is traditional culture’s value in a modern capitalist world? From a government-business perspective, where beyond tourism or the remnants of a peasant economy is there a ‘market’ for traditional culture? And how is the sociological situation in Pumuen village so much different from that of a rural town in the United States or Europe or Australia, for example?

The road brings: more power…more technology…more choices…more, vanishing culture

The dirt road to Pumuen brought with it the solar cell in 2005, as part of a Thai government initiative. Light bulbs quickly replaced the relatively expensive candles that villagers had for decades been using to light their homes. Villagers now had electricity but in limited and low-power capacity. They could operate black and white television sets and other electronics, but not (yet) satellites or color televisions, karaoke machines, or other technology. Watching television wasn’t popular at first, and villagers still gathered around a fire in the evening and spent time together. “When there was no television, they would walk to their neighbor’s house, sit around the fire and talk together about life,” said Promburom. “Men would talk about hunting; women about other things.”

By 2010, the beginning of a Thai government organized community based tourism project (which Promburom was managing) was operating in Pumuen village. Preston and Ngah (2002) address tourism in rural Southeast Asia areas. They reference Leksakundilok (2004) who say that “while staying with village families has for some time been possible in countries with an important tourist industry such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, the provision of services such as village homestays as a coordinated part of community attempts to earn money from offering hospitality to tourists is more recent. Although ‘ecotourism’ has become a term commonly associated with village-focused visits, and has grown in importance since the 1990s, such initiatives have often been driven by national and regional governments and villagers have not necessarily actively participated in ensuring collective benefits” (358).

While Promburom (2011) says that community based tourism (CBT) is a tool that can provide Pumuen villagers with helpful “supplemental income,” I maintain from observation that government organized tourism operations in highland villages, generally speaking, also is predominantly another form of business exploitation that often brings more direct financial benefit to those other than the villagers (e.g. tourism operators). Tourism also brings even more city life to the village, which also has its cons and pros. However, CBT in the rural indigenous villages like Pumuen differs from Thailand’s mainstream tourism in a sense that tourism in the Thai lowlands is a fundamental element of Thai society and also serves as a substantial part of the national economy (around 20 percent of the GDP). This said, the traditions of one ethnicity (Thai) cannot be weaved into that of another (Lahu) and synonymously maintain what is considered ‘traditional’ culture in either respect, regardless of creative marketing efforts. Moreover, what is considered ‘modern’ and what is considered ‘traditional’ cannot fully exist at the same time.

I suppose that tourism does bring positive elements to highland areas. The CBT project that Promburom helped install in Pumuen village, for example, has brought with it the reinstallation of the traditional flute as a part of regular life there; whereas, these traditions had otherwise vanished. Some children in Pumuen have learned how to play the flute, the drum, and how to dance. There likewise still exists in Pumuen village, with Christianity as the societal binding force, a palpable sense of community social cohesion and, for the most part, intact cultural traditions. The New Year’s traditions, which include several days of dancing, food (i.e. sacrificing of a pig), and communal sharing in Pumuen are being maintained. This is their time, for themselves.

The longitudinal societal affects of economic ‘development’

Villagers now go to work in the city and the urban related lifestyle and social behavioral changes (e.g. social class creation, staying up later at night, a focusing on the telvision, computer, or cellular phone) have become commonplace and culturally accepted. Adults aren’t necessarily correcting the children’s poor behavior. Social disorder is likewise also becoming more common as villagers begin to compete with each other more, using material possessions as a means of comparative measure. This is surely a prominent sociological trait of Western countries arguably as a result of the capitalist systems and material cultures that drive them.

In 2012, high power electricity was installed in Pumuen Nai (Black Lahu) village, while the traditional Red Lahu village nearby remained unpowered, for the time being. All able community members of Pumuen Nai village were essentially forced to help build this small hydropower plant or pay a daily fine equating to about half of what they would make if they were to spend the day working in their tea farm. Furthermore, villagers who wanted, or perceived that they needed, electricity installed in their home paid US$100-$150 for the installation, which for them is a lot of money. While high power electricity has certainly brought with it modern conveniences and perhaps a more comfortable life, such as the light bulb, this onset of electric availability has brought with it a profound transformation of the village in terms of social functioning. They are powered up now, functioning ever-faster, trying to keep up with the rest of the market-driven world.

While villagers still use fire for cooking and have yet to purchase machines such as a refrigerator or rice cooker evident in other highland ethnic villages where high power electricity exists, “This electricity capacity has changed the villagers by giving them more choices related to technology such as color television, karaoke machines, and DVD players,” said Promburom. “It’s not like the solar cell. I observed that all households changed from black and white to color television, and more satellite programming.

“Villagers now routinely watch movies at nighttime, for example, and this has changed their way of life,” added Promburom. “The technology changed the way they interact with each other. They used to sit by the fire together. Now they have their own television.”

Villagers who don’t have a satellite go to the neighbors who do have a television. Now they don’t use a candle because a light bulb does the job. Many of the children are watching television instead of being outside of the house and playing traditional games. They imitate, even emulate, what they see on TV, including aggressive actions.

The movie and soap opera channels are the most popular amongst villagers. Moreover, there is now what could be considered noise pollution in the village. Residents are playing music loudly, singing karaoke until late at night, for example. Due to the walls of their homes still being constructed of thatched bamboo, this disturbs one’s neighbors. Surely, related conflict that was not there before has surfaced and will intensify. This materialism has also brought about social competition mirroring aspects of Western culture. In a (Lahu) culture that is based in gender and social equality, a family in Pumuen that sees its neighbor has electricity now believes that they also must have electricity. A villager said in an interview with me that, “I can’t really afford this electricity. However, I want my children to have what the others have.” Does this wound familiar to mainstream ‘developed’ and supposedly more ‘civilized’ society?

Preston and Ngah (2002) talk about how “different generations of rural people experience and adapt to changes in different ways. Older people are less likely to migrate and are increasingly mindful of how difficult life is in the city” (355)…This information is coming to them via their interpretations of media and also from their children who are living and working in the urban areas; they visit the village and also report via cellular phone…This increasing awareness that some amenities taken as normal by urban people (e.g. good roads not suffering from regular flooding, organized waste disposal, access to postal services and communal facilities for meetings and recreation, technologies and other modern conveniences, etc.) has resulted in the inadequacies of such facilities in these rural areas” (356).

In June 2014, the dirt road connecting Pumuen village area with the lowlands was paved, shortly before the installation of a second Thai government funded hydroelectric power plant that now powers the traditional Red Lahu village that has existed there since the 1880s. It is notable that this tarring of the dirt road was reportedly at the request of the villagers, presumably so that they could in all regards have greatly easier access to the lowlands.

Still, a traditional animist village (the Red Lahu) community that has since its 1880s establishment never had any modern amenities was abruptly plugged into the high power grid. According to a villager, the tarred road and high power hydro-plant resulted in the community members near immediately purchasing vehicles (resulting in loan debt), washing machines, rice cookers, and color televisions. The infrastructure was quickly overtaxed, resulting in power outages (and community confusion about the results of their own ignorant actions).

The tar road is good for farming logistics though, making it far easier to transport their tea products to sell in the city. It’s also easier to take sick people to the clinic or hospital. However, in the case of Pumuen, the theory that the road surely leads to education opportunities I maintain is a farce, as funding was slashed for the lowland Thai school that used to provide extended high school education for Pumuen’s older youth. This, as previously mentioned, has rendered the younger generations essentially lost amid the cracks of a marginalized society.

Generally speaking, “These are the consequences of developing this village area over the past one hundred and forty years,” said Promburom. “You can see the holistic elements of the village, what is going to change, what has changed.

“I have now come here two years since doing my initial research and see the impact that development has had on this village,” added Promburom, with evident emotion. “The electricity has changed a lot of things. It used to be a peaceful area (and still is in most ways)…I know that when change (modernization) comes, the villagers have to change as well. But I would like to see this village not change so much.

“We should have a management system, so that the community changes slowly and their ways of life are sustained. Now there is noise from the music, the DVD players, and there are drunken people walking around in this village. These are behavioral changes, in a bad way that I don’t want to see…Culture is the core, the root of the human species; it says we are. We will do what we can do to preserve this.”

Preston and Ngah (2012) say, “It is also necessary to observe, in the context of personal and cultural history, the process whereby rural areas, physical resources and people are remembered and sometimes idolized (as remarked particularly in Thailand)” (359). They continue by referencing studies reviewed by Rigg & Vandergeest (2012), which “demonstrate how the village retains both symbolic and physical importance but different trajectories of change may in some circumstances revitalize existing economic and social activities or, in others, fundamentally change the nature of villages/communities. This underlines the need to recognize the complexity of change over time, and the limitations of generalized conclusions” (357).


This research project, with road development being a key factor point, looked at the ‘de’ of the word ‘development.’ This is in relation to culture and traditional ways of life, the short-term and potential long-term environmental and social impacts of development, and some suggestions about what can possibly be done particularly in the early stages of (community) planning to mitigate development related, perhaps socially detrimental, phenomena.

While core elements of ‘traditional’ culture remain in Pumuen, this village area largely as a result of government top-down development policies is becoming evermore plugged into mainstream Thai and global society. This community’s future is uncertain. As illustrated in Figure 1, this development process has happened one decade, one development policy at a time. Pumuen has functionally transformed from that of a nature-subsistence way of life — arguably more in-balance with its natural surroundings than people living in what is considered the ‘modern world’ — to that of being near totally dependent on a cash economy and the global market system that drives it. Pumuen village maintains positive attributes in terms of its overall functioning, including intact core beliefs in traditional Lahu ways of life. It as well has community cohesion in micro-level decision-making. However, villagers have particularly in the last sixty years experienced marked changes in both their physical environment and social functioning, and not necessarily for the better.

Preston and Ngah (2012) say, “Rural change is a continuous process in many world regions, but particularly significant in those areas affected by rapid urban and industrial change [such as Thailand[…We have acknowledged that change has affected people in different ways according to their age, gender and social position. This needs further investigation, in particular the degree to which change differentially benefits those with superior social and political power — whether by having more property or just belonging to the dominant political grouping” (362).

That said, I observed in my research (in Pumuen and throughout other rural ethnic village communities in northern Thailand) that many villagers want to, much like in what some may call more ‘civilized’ world cultures, keep up with their modernizing neighbors but don’t really know how to cope with their rapidly changing environment. The younger generations are looking to the outside world for examples of how to survive in a modern society. They have little to no clue which world existence paradigm to which they should identify with or to which one they belong. The middle-aged villagers want to preserve their culture, for which they feel responsible. However, while their children know the cultural traditions, the middle-aged are also being drawn towards the conveniences of an enticing modern world. Most of the elders can’t identify with any of this. Most all of these villagers are enduring what is perhaps a very real and tangible identity crisis. I will be so bold in posing the question: Is it (really) okay that this is transpiring — what is essentially ethnocide?

So what can be done? Kelly, Yutthaphonphinit, Seubsman, and Sleigh (2012; 10) say, “Development experience over many decades in Thailand has revealed that community learning and empowerment is most effective when the process is truly participatory. Outside agencies and community members each have something to offer the development process. Learning is best connected to real life activities, which is learning through collaborative action (Walaisethian, 2000). State agencies still have an important part to play in community development. They should support and encourage community activities financially and logistically as well initiating opportunities for self-empowerment by communities and listening and encouraging their participation” (Chaiyapong, 1996).

These authors add that one of the primary challenges with grassroots development in Thailand has been the country’s centralized government bureaucracy, with the powers that-be “reluctant to devolve power over decision making and funding to other levels of government. The development policies of the Thai government have changed dramatically over the last sixty years along with changes in style of governance and attitudes towards popular participation. From the era of military dictatorship and top-down development favoring rapid industrialization and entry into a market economy often at the expense of rural communities, policy from central planning agencies now favors the valuing of community cultures and local participatory development projects aimed at sustainable development. These changes have occurred in parallel with changes in the political system in Thailand towards a more open democratic system with more of a role for civil society. What is needed is more government support in community strengthening and decision-power distribution. Funding support should be given to community organizations that aren’t directly wrapped up in the politics.

This will involve a potentially radical change in power relations in Thailand and for this reason will not be easy to achieve” (11).

In 2014, a military coup (what appears to me as a socio-political revolution) in Thailand at least temporarily changed much of what Kelly et. al. wrote in 2012 about the country looking to actually decentralize its government powers and focus on bottom-up community development policies. The Thai military likewise established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which as of December 2016 is/was sternly governing the nation. This is/was supposedly in preparation for a future-elected democratic government (ironically) comprised of appointed public sector candidates. While, in preparation for this new era in Thai history, public dissent in most regards is/was prohibited. Rural folks, such as the villagers comprising Pumuen, certainly aren’t part of the country’s development conversation. Importantly, any reference to ‘indigenous’ peoples (such as those in Pumuen village) and their related social rights) have been omitted from Thailand’s newly drafted constitution. It can only be assumed at the time of writing this that, as mentioned in the earlier part of this research paper, that this exclusion of ‘indigenous’ from the consitution has to do with the Thai government’s further plans to ethnically homogonize the country into that of a Thai State.

I will conclude by saying that economic development, while it appears to bring comfort and order to what many people perceive as a chaotic world, in more ways than not also brings with it much pain and suffering. It also creates everything that we inherently don’t like (e.g. pollution; social and environmental degradation). Fundamentally different ways of life — the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern,’ these paradigms that nowadays define the existence of human beings — interact with each other as humanity overall relentlessly continues with this attempt to stitch together the natural with the synthetic.

Societies do still have their voices, and some good may even be forthcoming with modernity, but there’s malice amidst this grace. Stitches and scars remain from nails hammered into the coffins of ‘traditional’ cultures, of indigenous knowledge, of that proven mastery of how to survive on Planet Earth.

While aspects of all of this may seem dismal, there is yet hope; something eternal for us remains. This is life — the natural roots that all living beings share, an inherent need for community connection. Perhaps, this is the beauty that remains. At least, we still can witness facets of traditional culture, in its ongoing stages of disintegration. This questions the direction of humanity overall.

(This article is part 1 0f 2. Read part 2: Back to the Basics: Can’t Buy This Way of Life)

Jeffrey Warner is a civic photojournalist who has since 2010 been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, he has been dedicated to concentrating chiefly on the societal impacts of modern economic development. As an environmental context, Jeffrey has been focusing on the region’s marginalized peoples, primarily northern Thailand’s indigenous, ethnic “hill tribe,” communities. Jeffrey has authored two books. This case study is from his book, Indigenous Voices: Glimpses Into the Margins of Modern Development. Jeffrey has experience in Bosnia. He also has worked with Burmese migrants on the Thai-Burma border. His website is

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