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And yet, how is it that the peasants were able to choose to expand their economic activity in response to the market opportunities?
In the late nineteenth century, political and social changes were occurring rapidly in Siam (now Thailand). The old ruling families were being displaced by an evolving centralized government. These families were pensioned off (given a sum of money to live on) or simply had their revenues taken away or restricted; their sons were enticed away to schools for district officers, later to be posted in some faraway province; and the old patron-client relations that had bound together local societies simply disintegrated. Local rulers could no longer protect their relatives and attendants in legal cases, and with the ending in 1905 of the practice of forcing peasant farmers to work part-time for local rulers, the rulers no longer had a regular base for relations with rural populations. The old local ruling families, then, were severed from their traditional social context.
The same situation viewed from the perspective of the rural population is even more complex. According to the government's first census of the rural population, taken in 1905, there were about thirty thousand villages in Siam. This was probably a large increase over the figure even two or three decades earlier, during the late 1800s. It is difficult to imagine it now, but Siam's Central Plain in the late 1800s was nowhere near as densely settled as it is today. There were still forests closely surrounding Bangkok into the last half of the nineteenth century, and even at century's end there were wild elephants and tigers roaming the countryside only twenty or thirty miles away.
Much population movement involved the opening up of new lands for rice cultivation. Two things made this possible and encouraged it to happen. First, the opening of the kingdom to the full force of international trade by the Bowring Treaty (1855) rapidly encouraged economic specialization in the growing of rice, mainly to feed the rice-deficient portions of Asia (India and China in particular). The average annual volume of rice exported from Siam grew from under 60 million kilograms per year in the late 1850s to more than 660 million kilograms per year at the turn of the century; and over the same period the average price per kilogram doubled. During the same period, the area planted in rice increased from about 230,000 acres to more than 350,000 acres. This growth was achieved as the result of the collective decisions of thousands of peasant families to expand the amount of land they cultivated, clear and plant new land, or adopt more intensive methods of agriculture.
They were able to do so because of our second consideration. They were relatively freer than they had been half a century earlier. Over the course of the Fifth Reign (1868–1910), the ties that bound rural people to the aristocracy and local ruling elites were greatly reduced. Peasants now paid a tax on individuals instead of being required to render labor service to the government. Under these conditions, it made good sense to thousands of peasant families to in effect work full-time at what they had been able to do only part-time previously because of the requirement to work for the government: grow rice for the marketplace.
Numerous changes accompanied these developments. The rural population both dispersed and grew, and was probably less homogeneous and more mobile than it had been a generation earlier. The villages became more vulnerable to arbitrary treatment by government bureaucrats as local elites now had less control over them. By the early twentieth century, as government modernization in a sense caught up with what had been happening in the countryside since the 1870s, the government bureaucracy intruded more and more into village life. Provincial police began to appear, along with district officers and cattle registration and land deeds and registration for compulsory military service. Village handicrafts diminished or died out completely as people bought imported consumer goods, like cloth and tools, instead of making them themselves. More economic variation took shape in rural villages, as some grew prosperous from farming while others did not. As well as can be measured, rural standards of living improved in the Fifth Reign. But the statistical averages mean little when measured against the harsh realities of peasant life.