This article is a preliminary exploration of the impact of the world depression of the early 1930s on the rural populations of Southeast Asia. The first section of the essay considers some of the statistical evidence relating to living standards and economic welfare in rural Southeast Asia during the depression. The second section examines a number of factors—the alleged coercive power of the colonial state to secure its tax revenues and of rural capitalists to enforce debt and rent payments during a period of severe deflation—which would have had a major direct influence on levels of peasant consumption in the region in that period. The final section considers three indirect indications of changes in economic welfare in Southeast Asia during the depression: Indian immigration and repatriation rates; the import level of cotton piece goods; and mortality rates. The author advances two principal arguments: the sharp deflation of the early 1930s brought varying degrees of economic distress in the major export-oriented rural districts of Southeast Asia; but that even in those districts more severely affected by the crisis the decline in peasant welfare was markedly more modest than has hitherto been widely accepted.

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