For about half a century, northern Thailand’s Royal Projects have been a frontier institution transforming the agrarian landscape through various “hill tribe” development schemes. This institution has been established not only through development/humanitarian processes, but also through political processes to the extent that popular (and academic) discourses seem to have been limited to representing the “successful” outcomes of the Projects.

Yet, the “success” of the Projects are more discursive than an actual manifestation of villagers’ everyday experiences. Based on the fieldwork for my MA thesis, conducted in a Royal Project site in northern Thailand in Summer 2007, I suggest that the Project successes should be understood as being constructed through two moments of blindness: blindness on the financial and agricultural-related distress of host farmers/employers, and on the chronic poverty of migrant workers onto whom the employers; financial burdens are off-loaded. In my research site, which I refer to by the pseudonym of Doi Soong or Doi Soong Royal Project, “local” farmers belong to the Hmong minority group who increasingly hire Shan migrants/refugees from Burma for a majority of the work.

Public discourse in Thailand uncritically represents the upland peoples’ lives as “improving”, giving credit to highland development schemes. For instance, the Bangkok Post (July 2007) quoted Paul Michael Taylor from the Smithsonian Institute as saying, “Thailand has had great success in abolishing opium cultivation… while respecting the culture of traditional opium-growers and offering them appropriate alternative sources of income…The Royal Project is worthy of study by everyone interested in sustainable development…”. Similarly, Peter Cummins wrote in the Chiang Mai Mail (November 2002) in relation to Royal Projects that “For the youth themselves, the former degradation and exploitation through drugs and other evils are now but evaporated smoke from some distant ‘pipe dream’!”. Various market researchers also echo such beliefs, many of them writing within the framework of orthodox development based on the assumption that increased annual sales/income of the Project improve villagers’ livelihoods. Very little attention has been paid to the everyday experiences of villagers, and the migrants who now constitute a major part of the Royal Project work force.

My findings reveal that the Hmong villagers in thisRoyal Project areas are in financial distress; about 75% of them are in debt. Although rural indebtedness is not a unique phenomenon, this sheds light on the gap between public representation of the Project and the villagers’ experiences. Moreover, many villagers express discontent over the Project’s policies, or rather policy failures. These policy failures include the Project’s arbitrary refusal to buy vegetables from the villagers in the name of environmental safety standard called Good Agricultural Practices, inconsistent buying practices, often lower price than market price, differential provisions of advanced technologies in villages within the project area, land use restrictions, and late payment to the villagers, which usually leaves the villagers with inadequate money for re-investment. Increasing insistence on organic farming, which is more labor-intensive and costly, is adding to the farmers’ distress, especially when input prices and family expenses are raising. (Note: I hope to post to New Mandala on these policy failures in more detail soon).

Despite disappointments with agriculture, many villagers do not leave farming or diversify income sources because the exit seems to have been blocked by discrimination against minority groups in urban areas, as well as the farmers’ unfamiliarity with non-agricultural livelihoods.

Yet, the already uneasy relationship between the farmers and the Project has not turned into hostility, and the farmers’ distress does not appear much in public discourses for two reasons. The first is the construction of the Hmong as “governable subjects” through the naturalization of Royal Project authority. That is, the Hmong in Thailand have historically been constructed as non-Thai immigrants; a hill tribe who are destroying Thai forests. This sets up a political relationship in which the Hmong are treated as “outsiders” and “problem markers” whose modes of thought and action need to be governed. In response, the Project comes as a national institution to protect the nation, whereas the Hmong as “outsiders” are to obey the Project. Moreover, the Project has been historically established as a hegemonic institution to the extent that going against its current is politically limited. Thus, politicians, researchers and the media rarely publicize any Project shortcomings. Consequently, the villagers’ distress hardly appears in the public discourse. This relationship, however, is not that new.

What seems to be new, or perhaps, to attract little public and academic attention in this specific spatial and eco-political context is the role of the migrants. As mentioned earlier, the Hmong hire Shan migrants/refugees as cheap labor (100 Baht a day to the Shan as opposed to 150 Baht for Karen,
Lisu and Hmong laborers), with extremely short terms of employment (daily, 2-3 days to a week, on call, hire-and-fire, etc as opposed to a the more secure employment of other laborers). By employing migrant workers, the farmers have intensified agriculture, growing crops more times a year (2-3 times as opposed to 1-2 a year). In a way, the Hmong off-load their financial burden onto the Shan in their struggle to capture enough profit to survive.

What is intriguing here is the way the nation-state incorporates people differently. In particular, in the discursive construction of the Project’s success, the Hmong are incorporated into the nation-state (although outsider status is maintained in other contexts). Yet, the Shan are treated as mere “outsiders”, which justifies the second blindness. That is, the Shan’s poverty and even their labor contribution to the Project’s operation is completely erased from the representation of the Project. Given that the Shan are treated as “extra-legal” subjects, the existence of the Shan is not supposed to be talked about (in order to keep off the police radar).

As such, the Shan are erased from the economic relations between two official parties — the Hmong and the Project, the latter exporting/marketing the formers vegetable crops. If the Shan laborers were brought to the fore as part of the production process, the “success” of the Royal Project would be devastated, as the Shan are living in the conditions that the Hmong used to live in the past — the reference point against which today’s Royal Projects claim their success.

For instance, an information booklet from the Royal Project states:

The people living in the highland areas, Thailand’s “hill tribes”, were desperately poor. Whether or not they were growing opium, they did not have enough food to eat or proper shelter. They were uneducated and permanently sick with the diseases of poverty… People who visit the highlands now will find peace and prosperity…. The senses of abject poverty are gone. Visitors to some hilltribe villages can find families living in well-made housing with electricity and satellite television with a new pickup truck parked outside… their children are attending secondary schools and university in town, can drink clean water… (p.4, no date).

This kind of narrative is reflected in various policy papers, reports and even academic studies as well as Hmong respondents’ narratives of village life in the past and present. While the Hmong now live in better houses, have electricity and televisions, and their children are having better educations, the reverse is true for the Shan.

If we bring the Shan, as actual producers of vegetables, into the picture, or if we take into account the presence of the Shan and their labor as part of the production process, we can see that the Project’s framework of poverty (not enough food, proper shelter, education, etc) is still there, which raises all manner of interesting questions about the reputed “success” of the Royal Projects.