From Co-ops to CODI:
A Glimpse of Thailand's Hidden Legacy

The idea of co-ops is not new in Thailand; it exists for hundreds of years before the emergence of nation-states. It's the idea of sharing common instrument of production: land, houses, farming tools, water buffalos - sometimes even lovers. It was an informal endeavor which allows villagers to pull together resources and share them collectively so that they could survive as a group.

Co-ops in Thailand officially started in 1915 during the era of Absolute Monarchy. It functioned as a way to prevent farmers from abandoning their land in the mist of unpaid debts. The first co-ops were credit co-ops; registered under the Royal Treasury Department. (1)

These credit co-ops enabled poor farmers to continue their farming production and supply; it performed remarkably well in preventing the collapse of the farming industry. A new class of money-lender was emerging; and the co-ops structure was used to shelter the farmers from the worldly influences of the new bourgeois.

Then, during the height of the Great Depression, the 1932 revolution came; it abolished the system of Absolute Monarchy. Shortly after, a young revolutionary leader - Pridi Banomyong - had an idea: He was to restructure the entire governmental apparatus and turned it into a loose network of co-ops throughout the country.

Pridi started out by turning the existing co-op "associations" into a "department" and slipping it under the Ministry of Agriculture. The new co-ops that were starting to emerge under Pridi's direction were a far cry from its predecessor.

In Pridi's own words: "During the era of Absolute Monarchy, they only had the credit co-ops; back then people organized into groups so-that they could, together, borrow money from the credit co-ops to pay for their debts. But our co-ops now included production cooperatives and many other forms of co-ops that were initiated by the people themselves. The state only went in to assist them in their endeavors." (2)

Pridi transformed his thoughts on the "nation of co-ops" into a national proposal; then in 1933, he proceeded to formally make a presentation to the parliament. (6)

His presentation was met by a reaction of disbelief and shock. He was branded a "communist" by the conservative faction within the parliament. There were huge outcries by the landowners and the old power elites.

The idea of having a nation full of co-ops was so radical that it split the newly formed government into many competing factions. The conflict brewed on and culminated in 1946. In 1947, Pridi - the Prime Minister - was removed from office by the conservatives in a military coup. As he was contemplating exile in Mexico, a CIA official stationed in Chiang Kai-shek's China thwarted his efforts:

"We thought of going to Mexico with a stop by San Francisco," wrote Pridi. "While we were presenting our passports to the Chinese official in charge of immigration, a young American called Norman Hannah, vice-consul of Shanghai, arrived in a rush, wrenched my passport from the hands of the Chinese official, and cancelled the American visa given to me by the American Embassy in London."

"I then realised that a young American vice-consul had full authority over a Chinese official, and even over the American ambassador (later I learned that this vice-consul was a CIA agent)." (3)

In 1949, with the help of Zhou Enlai, Pridi went on to live in exile in Beijing. (4) He would remain in China for the next 20 years.

During this whole confusion, a colorful general named "Plack" (meaning "strange" in Thai) took power and became the absolute ruler of Thailand. Plack quickly abbreviated his given name - understandably - to a single letter "P." So, from then on, he was known as Field Marshal "P." He was Pridi's colleague and archrival from the revolutionary days of 1932.

From the year 1948 to 1957, Field Marshal "P" held Thailand with an iron grip; he peppered the country with his own secret police and sent a few unruly journalists to the firing squad. He changed the country name from "Siam" to "Thailand" (the land of Thais) in the same fashion as "Deutschland." His fascination with Fascism and Adolf Hitler was well known; so were his anti-Chinese policies. But ironically, the Field Marshal continued to promote the idea of co-ops and actually kept secret ties to Pridi and Beijing.

In 1952, Field Marshal "P" personally elevated the Co-op Department into a Ministry. It became the Ministry of Cooperatives. He also presided over the Ministry himself.

This was the first time in Thai history that an independent Ministry of Cooperative was allowed to exist and operated as the main actor in the national development plan. The new Ministry of Cooperative encouraged all kinds of co-ops such as land co-ops, consumer co-ops, production co-ops, and credit co-ops etc.

After 11 years of its fruitful existence, the Ministry of Co-ops was finally abolished in 1963; it was after Field Marshal "P" himself was ousted from office by the pro-American faction of the military. The Field Marshal, ironically, was distrusted by the conservatives as he was starting to become a bit too friendly with Maoist China. His little secret was exposed.

The Ministry of Cooperative was abolished and stashed aside under various governmental departments. It finally found its way back to the stuffy backroom of the Ministry of Agriculture - under a more modest name: The Cooperative Promotion Department (CPD).

Today anyone wishing to set up a new co-op in Thailand will have to register it under the CPD. But the bureaucracy of registering a co-op with the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperative is not so alluring for many communities.

"Cooperatives in Thailand are vertically organized in a three-tired system: primary cooperative, provincial federation, and national federation." (5) It is really a top down approach to community organizing. The leadership members of the co-ops must deal with local politicians, business men and local Mafiosi; they soon found themselves playing on the same golf course as these shady men.

In 2003, CODI started its collective housing program - the Baan Mankong. Squatters and slum dwellers could receive infrastructure grant money - up to 35,000 baht per household. But they must organize into collective saving groups first before getting the cash. They could also register as co-ops if they so wished to. In addition, they would receive 20,000 baht worth of grant money that could be used for fixing up their homes as well.

Low interest housing loans - at 4% - are also available for up to 300,000 baht per household; the loans are given to the community as a group once they have saved up to 10% of their prospective loan amount. This amount is subdivided into Land Loan and Housing Loan; each type of loan cannot exceed 150,000 baht per household.

Ther land loans are made available for community collectives that wish to buy their own land elsewhere - near their old settlements. The interest rate is 4%. Of all of CODI projects, 33% of the squatters decided to relocate to a new piece of land and built their communities from scratch. The other 66% decided to remain on the same piece of land to make improvement or land sharing deals with the landowners.

In all cases, the communities that wish to join the Ban Mankong program must organize themselves into some sort of collective groups.

CODI, in the tradition of Pridi Banomyong, is trying to recreate the idea of a nation built on a loose "horizontal" network of co-ops; some are not even officially registered as "co-ops", but they do operate collectively nevertheless.



Today CODI has planted 745 collective housing projects in 249 cities throughout 76 provinces. The number of households officially living in these collectives is well over 80,200 in total. That's a large number, considering that there are also people "unofficially" living in each community. Assume that there is an average of 5 people in each household; we would have a commune of 401,000 inhabitants. That is almost the size of the city of Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. And the number is growing.

One of Pridi's unfortunate mistakes was his blunt declaration in 1946 to "create a nation of co-ops." It came too fast, too real, and too scary for the ruling class. Today, the spectre of communism - and the collectives - is seen as a lesser threat to the elites than the spectre of slums. Slums that grow on their land, in their backyards, next to their French doors, and across from their balconies; slums that peek into their bedroom's chandelier and smile at their mistresses; such spectre is much more threatening to them than a Che Guevara T-shirt.

CODI's low-keyed collectivism, in the end, manages to operate under the radar screens of the elites - at least for now. There is a strong mutual interest in bringing about a better living condition for the masses. The means to get there, however, is no longer so much of a concern. After all, if a country with 1/5 of the world's population can live with "One Country, Two Systems," why can't we?

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References:

(1) http://www.cpd.go.th/web_cpd/cpd_knowme.html

(2) Chatip Nadsupa, Some Thoughts and Experience of Pridee Banomyong: An Interview, 1982, p.73 (Thai Language)

(3) Sulak Sivaraksa, US's Fickle Friendship with Pridi, Bangkok Post, 2000

(4) Wanchai Tantiwitthayaphithak, An Episode in the Life of Poonsuk Banomyong (Pridi's widow), Sarakadee Magazine, 1996 (Thai Language)

(5) Ministry Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries, Cambodia, Cooperative Movement in Thailand: Report of Study Tour, 2004)

(6) Pridi's Economic Plan 1933, http://www.openbase.in.th/files/pridibook049part2_4.pdf