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.


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.

Cotton, industrialisation and a missing piece of the puzzle

by Alka Raman (London School of Economics)

This study was awarded the prize for the best new researcher poster at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast. The poster can be viewed here.


Cotton merchant, taken by Francis Frith between 1850 and 1870. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The first Industrial Revolution has long been seen as the beacon of modernity, heralding unprecedented economic growth and the biggest uplift of living standards in human history. Its prominence amid themes in economic history is such that it dwarfs all others in comparison, including the fact that the British cotton industry – the nucleus of industrialisation – was not the world’s first cotton manufacturing industry serving a global demand for cotton goods.

Handmade cotton fabrics were exported from India to the rest of the world as early as the twelfth century. Indeed every textbook on economic history, when charting the growth of the British cotton industry, precedes its achievements with a dutiful narration of the introduction of cotton goods into England by the English East India Company in 1699 and the ‘frenzy’ for these cottons within the domestic and overseas markets.

But a passing reference to imitations quickly gives way to an impressive series of mechanisations and illustrious British inventors associated with them. Any connection to the preceding handmade Indian product is effectively lost.

Consequently, a crucial piece of the puzzle – how the seat of cotton manufacturing went from the Indian subcontinent to the heart of England – has remained inadequately explained. Learning from pre-existing products has been mentioned, but what this learning contained, how it may have been transferred and with what kind of outcomes are concepts that have been under-explored.

Hence the question at the heart of my research: did the pre-existing, handmade and globally demanded Indian cottons influence the growth and technological trajectory of the nascent British cotton industry?

Central to my thesis is the idea that the pre-industrial Indian cotton textiles contained the material knowledge required for their successful imitation and reproduction. These handmade Indian cottons embodied the cloth quality, print, design and product finish that the machine-made goods sought to imitate. Did learning from these pre-existing market-approved products contribute to the growth of early British cotton manufacturing?

My research identifies learning from the benchmark product, as well as competition with it, as two simultaneous stimuli shaping the British cotton industry during its initial phase. In terms of methodology, the thesis tests these two stimuli against historical textual and material evidence.

The writings of manufacturers, traders and historians/commentators of the period show that both manufacturers and innovators recognised that there was a knowledge problem or a ‘skills gap’: British spinners could not spin cotton warp to match Indian hand-spun warp’s quality. Entrepreneurs identified matching the quality of Indian hand-spun warp as a key motivation for innovation. Their language of quality comparisons with reference to Indian cottons is crucial and highlights comparative quality-related learning from Indian cotton goods.

Does the material evidence corroborate this textual finding? To establish if cloth quality improved over time, I study the material evidence (surviving cotton textiles from the period) under a digital microscope and thread counter to chart the quality of these fabrics over the key decades of mechanisation. I use thread count to establish the comparative quality of the machine-made cotton fabrics vis-à-vis the handmade Indian cottons.

My findings show that early British ‘cottons’ were, in reality, mixed fabrics using linen warp and cotton weft. In addition, the results show a marked increase in cloth quality between 1746 and 1820.

Assessed together, the textual and material evidence demonstrate that mechanisation in the early British cotton industry was geared towards overcoming specific sequential quality-related bottlenecks, associated first with the ability to make the all-cotton cloth, followed by the ability to make the fine all-cotton cloth.

Imitation of benchmark Indian cottons steered the growth of the British cotton industry on a specific path of technological evolution – a trajectory that was shaped by the quest to match the quality of the handmade Indian cotton textiles.