The struggle to plough on
There are about 10 million rice farmers in Thailand and throughout history farmers have been known as the backbone of the nation. But the long-running, seemingly unsolvable crisis over the price of rice and the stigma of poverty that has plagued Thai rice farmers for decades have driven farmers' sons and daughters to leave the fields to pursue more secure and well-paid professions, often in the city. Life talks to four of the offspring of farmers on why they turned their backs on their families' vocation — practised over several generations — and whether they will return to the fields one day.
Chantana Tiprachart. Photo courtesy of Chantana Tiprachart
Chantana Tiprachart | Filmmaker
One day Chantana Tiprachart will definitely go back to rice farming in her hometown in Kalasin province, but not anytime soon. And when she does, the 24-year-old filmmaker, who's now based in Bangkok, said: "Things must not be as tough as they have always been."
The daughter of northeastern farmers, Chantana's move to Bangkok wasn't purely a matter of choice. The rice-price crisis may have appeared in the news recently, but throughout her life Chantana never recalls her family's rice farming, handed down over many generations, as something that was financially thriving. It provided just enough for her family to get by.
The latest price of rice her mother was offered was less than 5,000 baht per tonne, as opposed to 12,000-15,000 baht at its best. The family understandably prefers to just keep the harvest for their own consumption.
In order to send her brother and herself to school, her father had to take out huge loans, and that's one of the main reasons she's now working in Bangkok as a co-producer for a TV series.
Chantana moved to the capital only after graduating from the Faculty of Communication Arts at Burapha University. Studying advertising, she developed a passion for filmmaking, and through the medium of film she began to look at society with a more critical eye.
She got started by sending her short films to competitions, and it was one of her early works, Status, a film exploring the idea of media literacy and objectivity in university studies, which made the shortlist at the Thai Short Film & Video Festival a few years ago and gained her recognition on the scene. Her debut feature film The Otherness, which is set in a rural village and deals with a sense of alienation based on her own experience, will be released in cinemas around the end of next year.
"I do want to go back home but I can't," said Chantana. "With rice farming, you can never get enough money to pay off the debt no matter how hard you work. The interest payments just keep piling up, and these loans are not only from regulated systems, so the situation is even worse.
"To put it frankly," she half-jokes, "my only hope is to find a rich husband."
The filmmaker said that her current job isn't exactly solving her financial problems either, but at least she has the money to send back to her parents every month so they don't have to work so hard in the fields like before.
"It's so funny when I read all this news of rice crisis and the government," said Chantana, stressing that every government is the same. "They treat us as if we were a pawn in some game, as a means of getting attention. I will get back to farming at home one day, as well as continue with making films. But I don't ever want it to be as tough as it is now. I don't know how -- integrating other types of plants as well maybe. I guess I will have to just make a start and figure it out myself."
-- Kaona Pongpipat
Yongyut Khamkong. Yongyut Khamkong Yongyut Khamkong | Lecturer
Yongyut Khamkong. Yongyut Khamkong
Yongyut Khamkong | Lecturer
'I always wanted to be a teacher, it was my dream job when I was young."
Yongyut Khamkong, now a lecturer at St Theresa International College in Nakhon Nayok, spent his childhood growing rice in Suan Khwan village in Nakhon Sawan province. His dream of becoming a teacher wasn't exactly because he loved teaching.
"Teaching was the only career a poor boy like me knew besides farming and labouring jobs," he said.
The 49-year-old grew up in a big family of 24, all of whom worked in over 100 rai of paddy fields owned by his grandparents. However, the harvest was never enough for them to make ends meet and they had to do more jobs, such as cutting sugar cane and planting cassava in exchange for meagre wages.
"It was very tough being a farmer in my village. We could grow rice only once a year because of the drought," he recalled. His small village was 40km away from Chao Phraya River but there was no irrigation around. The canals were always dry and the land was barren.
Seeing no future in rice farming, his mother struggled to put him and his three siblings through school and into higher education. He was the first person in the village who got a bachelor's degree from a university, becoming a role model for many children there.
It's been almost 30 years since he turned his back on farming and moved to work in Bangkok. But nothing seems to improve back in his village.
"Water shortages are the root cause of our plight. That's why we were overjoyed when we heard that there was going to be a dam around," he said, referring to the controversial Mae Wong Dam project which was initiated four years ago but later scrapped due to environmental concerns. He insisted that all of the villagers wanted the dam as it would give them water to farm all year long.
Today, his mother and many other family members are still farming in the village. Recently, however, many of them have begun to sell his grandparents' land and are now just hired farm workers.
"This is a pity. I always think that we should keep our ancestors' legacies, no matter what," he said.
Tough, exhausted and scarce might well describe his childhood on the farmland, but the father of a son who now possesses a doctoral degree calls it a memorable chapter in his life.
"My life in the city is quite stressful and this makes me miss the tranquillity of my rural life in those years. Despite all the difficulties I had back then, I have to admit that I was happy," he said.
Does he ever want to go back to grow rice again? Yongyut said that if all problems can be fixed and he has money to buy back some plots of land and also acquires the wisdom to do better in the field, maybe he will.
"Who knows, one day I might decide that I want to go back and spend the rest of my life there," he said.
-- Patcharawalai Sanyanusin
Riksh Upamaya. Riksh Upamaya Riksh Upamaya | Editor of a fashion magazine
Riksh Upamaya. Riksh Upamaya
Riksh Upamaya | Editor of a fashion magazine
'A farmer's life starts at a minus point," Riksh Upamaya explained. "Your money is all back to back and if you can't sell any rice that year, you start at a negative in the next and you have no guarantee for anything. I never saw it as an option because I grew up seeing my grandparents and parents do it and how arduous it is for farmers. Even farmers themselves don't want it as a choice, they just don't have any other choice."
You can always depend on Riksh, editor-in-chief of Thailand's first free fashion magazine Dont Journal, to give you well-informed pointers on which designer collections to shell out for. But besides commentating on Gucci, Prada and the like, advice from the dependably dapper and ever-stylish editor comes on a totally different topic: rice farming.
In fact, Riksh's social newsfeed is an unapologetic mishmash of high fashion photo shoots and status updates regarding discrimination, politics and the lower class' struggles. Had this son of a farming family from Si Sa Ket not been busy with the daily demands of running a magazine, what he'd excel at would be writing full-length opinion pieces about Thai society.
His parents were the first generation to step away from solely relying on farming and moved to Bangkok to obtain higher degrees in order to get better jobs. Their pay from teaching jobs ensured that Riksh got a good education, but they also made sure he appreciated the family's roots by leaving him at his grandfather's farm in the Northeast every summer. It was there that Riksh picked up speaking Lao and Khmer, as well as first-hand knowledge of the rice farming process.
Of his grandfather's generation, he said: "People before were not really aware of opportunities and everyone just took it that this is the way of life that has been laid out for you. Any change or movement at all requires investment and if that involves risk, it's not something they want to do."
Farmers may be seen as helpless by society but Riksh has long learned from his mother to make his own opportunities, this being when he became the self-appointed editor of the magazine that he and his friends founded.
"I didn't have time to wait for 10 years to be an editor. If I don't have the talent or my work sucks, I'm sure the magazine will die by itself. I'm so happy when people tell me that I've changed the industry, because I'm just a nobody but managed to build up a fashion magazine that is accepted by the masses."
The outspoken graduate of Chulalongkorn University's Communication Arts is celebrating the third anniversary of his glossy publication. Still, Riksh hopes that one day he will set up a self-sustaining system at his farm that could possibly be used as a model and inspiration for other farmers.
He makes it clear though, that the first problem is to stop seeing farmers as a burden.
"If you only see them as a burden, then it makes all help that should go to them seem unnecessary. That isn't right -- everyone and every occupation in this country should be taken care of, be it farmers, fishermen or office workers."
-- Parisa Pichitmarn
Dr Warin Yuyangate. Dr Warin Yuyangate | Neurosurgeon at Buddhachinaraj Hospital, Phitsanulok
Dr Warin Yuyangate.
Dr Warin Yuyangate | Neurosurgeon at Buddhachinaraj Hospital, Phitsanulok
Born into a lower middle-class rice farmer's home in Phitsanulok province, Dr Warin Yuyangate knew early on in life that if she was to break the cycle of poverty within her family, she would have to pick an alternative career path.
The 38-year-old neurosurgeon, the youngest of four children, has been a doctor for over a decade. Instead of opting for higher pay by working in Bangkok, after graduation she decided to return to her home district of Phrom Phiram to work in the community she grew up in.
"We pretty much lived a hand to mouth existence back then," said Dr Warin. "While we had food on our table, there was very little money left to cover other expenses.
"As far as I can remember, I have never had any desire to follow in the footsteps of my parents. As a young girl I used to see them work very hard in the field. Watching this often made me very sad. I knew back then that if I wanted to make a better life for my family, I would have to study hard and find a career that would help my parents to have a good life."
Dr Warin said she decided to become a doctor because she felt it was a noble profession that paid enough to support her family. Passing a municipality hospital every day to school confirmed her passion to work in the medical field.
"I used to look in awe at how doctors and nurses were given so much respect by their patients," she said emotionally. "I daydreamed of wearing the doctor's gown. Becoming a doctor for me was never about becoming rich. It was more about having enough, so my ageing parents would not have to plough the rice fields any longer."
Dr Warin admits that there are negative connotations associated with being the "peasant class". However, she feels that there are ways to make it a lucrative occupation by either selling organic produce, which has become trendy, or farming for tourism purposes, which is also gaining popularity. She is a big fan of His Majesty the King's sustainable farming philosophy.
"I opt to not put the entire blame of the rice pricing problems we have been facing squarely on the government," said Dr Warin. "Farmers also need to reflect on what happened. The King's sustainable farming philosophy makes it very clear that if we live within our means, we need not incur debts.
"Greed for material goods is one of the reasons some farmers become neck-high in debt. When I was little, we could make do with the little we had because we didn't see the desire to covet material goods that were beyond our financial ability. We didn't use chemicals on our crops, so there was plenty of fish to catch, and our produce was safe to eat."
-- Yvonne Bohwongprasert