War, shortage and Thailand’s industrialisation, 1932-57

by Panarat Anamwathana (University of Oxford)

This study was awarded the prize for the best conference paper by a new researcher at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference in Belfast.

 

1950S-BANGKOK-STREET-SCENE
1954 Bangkok street. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Thailand fell under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The small agrarian country relied on imports from the West for consumer and industrial goods, and suffered shortages of everything from clothes to machinery between 1941 and 1945.

After the Japanese surrender, the Thai government learned from its trauma, adapted its economic approach and began domestic production of its own consumer goods – although at the cost of inefficiencies and rent-seeking.

Economic historians have expressed different perspectives on Thailand’s immediate post-war economic development and state-led industrialisation programme. Some, such as Hewison (1989) and Ingram (1971), mention the expansion of manufacturing capacity, despite government inefficiencies. Others, such as Suehiro (1989) and Phongpaichit and Baker (1995), are more critical of state involvement, saying that rent-seeking and corruption hindered any real progress.

Anyone familiar with state-operated enterprises might be suspicious of Thailand’s state-led industrialisation approach. To protect many of the country’s new industries, import tariffs and quotas were introduced. At the same time, a new class of capitalists emerged from an alliance of politicians and entrepreneurs. These people benefitted from favourable concessions, state-sponsored monopolies or being granted lucrative import licences. The question is: did anything come out of all this?

Since Thailand had no industrial census for the period, it is difficult to measure changes in the kingdom’s manufacturing capacity from before the war to after the war. To address this challenge, I have gathered statistical data on three industries: sugar, textiles and gunny bags (which are essential for transporting rice, Thailand’s most important export crop). These goods were three of Thailand’s most important pre-war imports, key to the wellbeing of the population and rationed during the war.

My data come from a variety of primary sources from the National Archives of Thailand, the National Archives at Kew, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. I also read previously unused qualitative sources, such as government reports, correspondence and old newspapers to build a more complete picture of wartime Thailand.

I find that Thailand was able to produce more of its sugar, textiles and gunny bags after 1945, and continued to substitute for imports as the decade progressed. This was achievable in part because the shortage of goods during the war reinforced the drive to diversify the economy. Government systems and infrastructure established under the Japanese occupation but hindered by wartime circumstances could then make use of importing machinery and international credit.

Finally, machines and facilities abandoned by the Japanese army could be used by the post-war Thai government and their capitalist allies. I also find that per capita consumption either plateaued or increased during this period, suggesting that Thais were not deprived of these products because of the government’s industrialisation programme.

Corruption and rent-seeking, however, were common and can easily arise from state-led industrialisation programmes with little transparency, like that in Thailand.

For example, the Sugar Organisation, the most important state-operated enterprise in this industry, played a large role in transporting sugar from both private and government mills to shops. Unfortunately, this organisation was completely corrupt. It embezzled, cheated farmers, sold sugar to fake agents and distributors, and was extremely permissive on check-ups and regulation. Although the state did revoke some of the privileges of the organisation, it continued to operate throughout all the scandals.

My study not only contributes to the historiography of Thai economic development, but also engages with studies of various models of economic growth, the efficiency and costs of state-operated enterprises, and the legacies of the Second World War in occupied territories.

 

 

Further reading

Hewison, Kevin (1989) Bankers and Bureaucrats Capital and the Role of the State in Thailand, New Haven.

Ingram, James C (1971) Economic Change in Thailand, 1850-1970, Stanford University Press.

Phongpaichit, Pasuk, and Chris Baker (1995). Thailand: Economy and Politics, Oxford University Press.

Suehiro, Akira (1989) Capital Accumulation in Thailand, Tokyo.

Trains of thought: evidence from Sweden on how railways helped ideas to travel

by Eric Melander (University of Warwick)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.

 

 

Navvies_at_Nybro-Sävsjöström_railway_Sweden
Navvies during work at Nybro-Sävsjöströms Järnväg in Sweden. Standing far right is Oskar Lindahl from Mackamåla outside Målerås. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The role of rail transport in shaping the geography of economic development is widely recognised. My research shows that its role in enabling the spread of political ideas is equally significant.

Using a natural experiment from Swedish history, I find that the increased ability of individuals to travel was a key driver for the spatial diffusion of engagement in grassroots social movements pushing for democratisation.

In nineteenth century Sweden, as in much of Europe, trade unions, leftist parties, temperance movements and non-state churches were important forces for democratisation and social reform. By 1910, 700,000 Swedes were members of at least one such group, out of a total population of around 5.5 million. At the same time, the Swedish rail network had been developed from just 6,000km in 1881 to 14,000km in 1910.

Swedish social historians, such as Sven Lundkvist, have noted that personal visits by agitators and preachers were important channels for the spread of the new ideas. A key example is August Palm, a notable social democrat and labour activist, who made heavy use of the railways during his extensive ‘agitation travels’. And Swedish political economist and economic historian Eli Heckscher has written about the ‘democratising effect’ of travel in this period.

My study is the first to test the hypothesised link between railway expansion and the success of these movements formally, using modern economic and statistical techniques.

By analysing a rich dataset, including historical railway maps, information on passenger and freight traffic, census data and archival information on social movement membership in Sweden, I demonstrate the impact of railway access on the spread and growth of activist organisations. Well-connected towns and cities were more likely to host at least one social movement organisation, and to see more rapid growth in membership numbers.

A key mechanism underlying this result is that railways reduced effective distances between places: the increased ability of individuals to travel and spread their ideas drove the spatial diffusion of movement membership.

The positive impact of rail is only as a result of increased passenger flows to a town or city – freight volumes had no impact, suggesting that it was the mobility of individuals that spread new ideas, not an acceleration of economic activity more broadly.

These findings are important because they shed light on the role played by railways, and by communication technology more broadly, in the diffusion of ideas. Recent work on this topic has focused on the role of social media on short-lived bursts of (extreme) collective action. Research by Daron Acemoglu, Tarek Hassan and Ahmed Tahoun, for example, shows that Twitter shaped protest activity during the Arab Spring.

My study shows that technology also matters for more broad-based popular engagement in nascent social movements over much longer time horizons. Identifying the importance of technology for the historical spread of democratic ideas can therefore sharpen our understanding of contemporary political events.