Never Settled: Community, Land, and the Politics of the Urban Commons in Bangkok
Since its inception in 2005, Thailand’s Baan Mankong (“Secure Housing”) policy has garnered international acclaim for its success in supplying affordable housing to communities throughout the country’s urban areas. The program has been hailed as both empowering and effective because of its communal land tenure arrangements, innovative financial model, and participatory processes, which emphasize the role of networks of communities in guiding residents through the upgrading process. Though these community networks have received a great deal of attention and praise, researchers have too often spoken of them as a monolith. Few scholars have taken seriously the differences that exist between networks and the political implications of those differences. In this dissertation, I trace the trajectories of the community networks involved in Baan Mankong by looking not just at their immediate creations, but by stepping back to examine how they have formed as a result of and alongside evolutions in the concept of community itself. To do this, I begin with the Thai word for community—chumchon—and trace the evolution of the term and concept through seven decades of government programs, social movements, intellectual traditions. I then analyze how two prominent community networks involved in Baan Mankong result from these various influences and how their current political motives and institutional arrangements impact the communities they work with. This analysis points to the different possible political potentials of community in the planning context and how the role of communities with respect to policies can change when social programs grow in size and popularity.
In Chapter 1, I introduce the networks under study and discuss their significance with respect to the Baan Mankong policy. I then review several bodies of literature relevant to the study of Baan Mankong and similar policies. Finally, I discuss the methods and theoretical frameworks I employ in this investigation.
In the Chapter 2, I look to the era in which the word chumchon originated, when rural villages became the focus of both the mobilizations of the Communist Party of the Thailand and the counterinsurgency efforts of the Thai government and western powers. I weave together many social and political trends to understand how chumchon made its way into the lexicons, imaginations, and practices of opposing political movements.
In Chapter 3, I then demonstrate how, over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century, chumchon came to be applied not only to rural villages, but also to a particularly type of urban settlement, what are often called “slums.” Just as was the case in the era of the insurgency, in the urban context chumchon became the focus of both government programs and popular mobilizations against the state. These efforts to manage and utilize chumchon to serve different political interests were carried out in part by members of chumchon themselves, but they were also organized by a growing number of professionals, from government employees to organizers employed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Influenced by the global spread of practices of community development and community organizing, as well as lessons from the time of the insurgency, these professionals forged a number of common practices, though often in service of very different ideologies and political goals. It was out of this complex field of ideas, practices, and new professions, that slum-based community networks and community-based urban housing policies emerged. The most well-known among these is the Baan Mankong policy and the community networks associated with it.
In the second half of the dissertation, I turn to the present era, looking at these networks and their work on two different scales. First, In Chapter 4 I examine the networks themselves, describing their organizational structures, rhetorics, and ways of operating on the ground. In doing so, I look at the networks from both a comparative and a relational perspective. This means that I first analyze the similarities and differences of the individual organizations before pulling back to look at how those similarities and differences function in the larger contexts of the Baan Mankong policy and urban politics more broadly. This wider focus shows how the two approaches have both, in their own way, been integral to sustaining Baan Mankong over the past 15 years.
Following this examination of the networks themselves, in Chapter 5 I zoom in to the level of the community, looking at how the networks affect the social, political, and material formations of chumchon. Through an analysis of four chumchon case studies and employing the framework of the urban commons, I discuss how communities’ relationships with other organizations and larger political movements influence how they manage their collective ownership of land and resources. This small-scale examination of chumchon brings to light the everyday, human impacts of the Baan Mankong policy. It also highlights the lived reality of holding land and debt in common, both the benefits and the hardships. Furthermore, because the case studies represent communities that belong to different networks and began their projects at different points in time, I am able to trace how the process of doing Baan Mankong has changed as the program has “gone to scale” and various government entities have recognized the potential benefits to the state of having poor populations self-manage and take responsibility for urban development. I conclude that the process of creating the collective land and resources entailed in many newer Baan Mankong projects, far from being a political project of “commoning,” are more accurately described as “being commoned.”
In Chapter 6, I conclude by reflecting on what it means for a policy to be a success and the many unintended consequences of success. Baan Mankong’s declared success has resulted in its growth and expansion across Thailand. As the program model is replicated across the urban landscape, it reproduces particular physical forms, lifestyles, and modes of being a community. This replication carries with it a risk of producing de-politicized forms of community that function primarily as a means of managing poor populations. However, within the increasingly rigid structures of the established policy, as one network demonstrates, the prospect of using community as a base of political mobilization still exists. These dual possibilities of community—management versus mobilization—serve as both inspiration and caution for planners seeking to learn from best practices and replicate programs deemed successful.