My wife has a really soft spot for Thailand’s Princess Sirindhorn. I’ll confess that even with my usual cynicism about royalty and the state in general, and the Thai monarchy in particular, I too think she seems to be a lovely person. Polyglot (jeez, how many languages does she speak anyway? And yes, she speaks Khmer), musician, possessor of a charming and appropriate self-deprecating manner, and more tirelessly dedicated to improving the condition of the poor than her father ever was, it’s hard to say much bad about the lady. And I won’t start here.
So why am I writing this post? For one simple reason. The good folks over at New Mandala have posted a picture and short entry about Princess Sirindhorn’s recent participation in a festival devoted to encouraging Thai farmers to return to the traditional buffalo-driven plough, which is less efficient in the short term, and more efficient (and sustainable) when the land and its produce are considered over time. Lovely cause, etc.
But there’s a historical note that it missing. In many ways, she is simply putting a relatively ecologically-sensitive spin on a very traditional role for royalty: encouraging their subjects to engage in agriculture.
I won’t bother to back up the arguments here, though they are easily found elsewhere and are not considered controversial by people who study the difference in subsistence strategies: agriculture is a tougher, hungrier, more hierarchical life than that led by hunter-gatherers, or by those who engage in limited shifting cultivation, as long as the latter two groups are not forced to compete with expanding agriculturalists.
Royal power throughout history has largely relied on the in-gathering of agricultural ‘surpluses’ (( ‘surplus’ is an intensely stupid word for the share taken by kings. The king’s share remained the same, for the most part, regardless of whether it left enough for the farmer’s own needs or not, such that peasants had to create their ‘surplus’ first, and then attempt to create enough ‘extra’ to actually eat.)), and who were surrounded by forests where hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators still attempted/attempt to live more sustainable lives. Moreover, especially in moments of economic crisis (often occurring after a period of prosperity in which agricultural work was gradually displaced onto a growing slave class), these same ‘forest’ groups were increasingly raided for slave populations to do the agricultural work. This is a well known fact throughout mainland Southeast Asia.
The real problem was keeping the slaves/farmers on the farm, and preventing them from heading back to the forests. I’ve written an as-yet-unpublished essay which touches on this, but the logic is rather clear, I think.
And so, in those mainland Southeast Asian countries where Buddhism, the state, and imperial agriculture combine to form the basis of society, the king will always be deeply involved in convincing people to stay on the farm, and when he (or his princess daughters) cannot, forcing them to do so. The Khmer ritual of the Royal Plouging Ceremony (also possessed by the Thai, for instance) is an elaborate ploughing ritual in which the king ceremoniously ploughs a sacred field, and then releases the buffalo to eat of the different crops which might be expected. Depending on what they eat, omens for the future harvest are interpreted.
Kings don’t spend much time sweating behind the plough. In fact, their status comes precisely because they don’t spend time engaging in productive work. But the historical ritual actions of royalty, intended to convince the ‘feet’ of the nation that intensive agriculture is honorable, important, and non-negotiable is always, and will always, be an important part of the state’s actions (consider the parallels with the USA’s current massive subsidies to farmers who grow crops for which there are already unsustainable surpluses).