Dominique Caouette and Sarah Turner, eds., Agrarian Angst and Rural Resistance in Contemporary Southeast Asia.

London and New York: Routledge, 2009. Pp. xx, 289; maps, ills., glossary, index.

Increasing demand on globalized markets for commodities ranging from food crops to bio-fuel has put increasing pressure on land use and sparked rapid transitions from subsistence to commercial agriculture. This agrarian transition began in Southeast Asia during the 1960s; it has accelerated rapidly in recent decades. It has been facilitated by the strategies of states, usually framed with the involvement of bilateral and multilateral donors and of NGOs. These strategies have included new regulations, laws, and programs–for example, “packages” of “Green Revolution” technology prescribed to support people’s livelihood. These “state strategies have at times [also] resulted in immensely uneven economic development, generating new forms of conflict, exclusion, and resistance” (p. 7). Those agriculturalists able to take advantage of the transformation process have become rural elites and middle-class peasants, while those unable to do so (including indigenous communities and other vulnerable groups) have found their livelihoods threatened by increasing dispossession of their land, reduction of their access to common property resources, and escalating cultural conflict. These impacts of Southeast Asia’s agrarian transition have created the “sites of struggle” that are the main focus of this volume.

The volume tries to show that there are numerous, diverse forms of resistance, of varying complexity, and also to provide an analytical framework to explain this diversity. It roots its case in three arguments. First, it argues that forms of agrarian resistance in Southeast Asia are increasingly intertwined and complex. Some forms of resistance have now become transnational; they also interconnect with one another across scales. Second, it contends, “forms of resistance in Southeast Asia are numerous, rapidly diversifying, and never static” (p. 4). Third, the book argues that the context within which resistance takes place–the “dominating structures”–determines the choices that people make and the forms of defiance that they adopt. These forms can include simply covert acts of non-cooperation or passive resistance in response to exploitation as well as organized, overt protest. The different forms of resistance to which people resort reflect their own needs, socio-cultural contexts, and opportunities. This view leads in this volume to a focus on “agency,” i.e. how ordinary people make decisions about their involvement in struggles to demand mitigation of their grievances (pp. 3-4).

This framework accommodates complex and diverse forms of rural resistance, ranging from local protests to transnational activism on the part of well organized social movements. The focus on agency shaped by specific historical contexts and opportunity structures has, the volume suggests, been a key strength in the analysis of why the people choose to resist or favor one form of resistance to others in seeking to address their grievances or show their disapproval. Rural resistance has displayed varying forms in specific contexts. For example, agrarian resistance in socialist Vietnam was transformed from covert acts of defiance toward collectivization into more overt resistance after the 1986 economic reforms. But the situation in which resistance occurred meant that it never grew beyond local-level protest. Such local-oriented activities were driven by the central government’s tolerance only of local protests and not of larger protests of a kind that would question the legitimacy of its rule (pp. 162-175). Even transnational movements have been shaped by domestic concerns; they rarely operate on an exclusively international plane (p. 247).

The attempt in this volume to encompass a wide variety of agrarian resistance within such broad arguments raises the risk of a diffuse collection of essays of varying foci on the general issue of resistance. Some chapters focus on the importance of agency in specific contexts to explain different forms and levels of rural resistance and strategies (covert or overt) used by agrarian movements at the local and national levels. Examples include Tran Thi Thu Trang’s chapter on Vietnamese peasant resistance under collectivization and following economic reform in 1986 (briefly discussed above), Andrew Walker’s chapter on contract farming in northern Thailand, Lesley Potter’s chapter on oil palm and resistance in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan, Erik Kuhonta’s chapter the case of the Pak Mun Dam in northeastern Thailand, and Sandra Smeltzer’s chapter on Malaysian resistance to a proposed free trade agreement with the United States. Other chapters examine the natures, origins, and specific concerns of resistance and resistance movements. For example, Vu Tuong’s chapter on Indonesia’s agrarian movements analyzes the contemporary discourses and shows that agrarian movements in Indonesia are marked by ideological trends that can be traced back to the Netherlands East Indies’ anti-capitalist movement of the 1920s. Similarly, Caouette’s chapter on “scaling up rural resistance globally” focuses on four transnational advocacy networks and how these four networks can potentially contribute to linking local resistance to transnational struggle. While these varied foci permit detailed descriptions of the different aspects, great complexity, and increasingly intertwined and transnational nature of certain cases, their variety imposes limitations on our ability to draw systematic comparisons across cases.

Further, only very late in the volume do causes of agrarian resistance in Southeast Asia during recent decades receive clear attention. In their introductory chapter, Caouette and Turner seem to imply a relationship between agrarian transition–i.e., the move toward commercialization of agriculture–and rural resistance (pp. 1-2). They note that the intensification characteristic of agrarian transition has contributed to increasing agricultural productivity on the one hand and to “upheavals in customary labour patterns and culturally accepted agricultural practices” on the other (p. 5). However, different chapters highlight different causes of resistance; no uniform relationship between agrarian transition (or commercialization of agriculture) and rural resistance emerges. In Vietnam during the 1960s and the 1980s, for example, people resisted collectivization covertly by minimizing time allocated to agricultural cooperatives and maximizing time spent working their private plots. This form of resistance responded to the severe shortage of food that resulted from collectivization. It was a case, then, of rural resistance emerging when rural livelihood was threatened. In another case treated in the volume, Hmong in northern Vietnam faced increasing market pressures following the economic reform of the mid 1980s. The modulation of their participation in the trades in embroidered clothes and cardamom may, however, be linked to “a selective livelihood model” derived from their specific cultural and social setting (p. 58). In Indonesia, the many contemporary agrarian movements that have emerged since the 1980s and expanded rapidly since the end the New Order could be linked to the anti-capitalist ideology shared by movement leaders (p. 198).

In spite of the above shortcomings, Agrarian Angst and Rural Resistance in Contemporary Southeast Asia provides rich discussion of and insight into the complexity, robustness, and rapidly diversifying forms of agrarian resistance in Southeast Asia. This volume may offer a basis for the study of how to develop appropriate strategies to mitigate the impact of globalization and how to achieve popular mobilization to demand good governance and accountability from governments.

Sokbunthoeun So

Democratic Governance and Public Sector Reform Program

Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI)

Phnom Penh