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Saturday, November 15, 2008
This land is my land
Rare indeed is good news from the restive South. Here is one item which represents a glimmer of hope for the seemingly elusive peace.
And if the same thing is taking place in other parts of the country, it might help pull us back from the senseless and violent feud over what democracy is or what it should be.
For the locals, the democracy they want is not what is defined by the warring elite in Bangkok; it is participatory democracy on the ground which respects local realities and concerns.
And when that happens, the healing power is tremendous.
That was what occurred in Narathiwat recently. Smiles were all around at a mosque in Narathiwat's Bacho district, where some 30 villagers were receiving land title deeds in a ceremony presided over by top government officials.
It was a happy ending after over four decades of local bitterness against the autocratic zoning of the Budo-Sungai Padi National Park, which "stole" the villagers' land and community forests.
For the ethnic Malay Muslim villagers who live close to nature there, the land plots in question belong to them, where their ancestors grew fruit and other indigenous trees they use for food and timber. The trees have over time grown and flourished into lush, forest-like orchards.
For the forestry authorities, the Bacho villagers had no title deeds for the land they claimed, so the area must belong to the Forestry Department in accordance with the forestry law, which is written by the Forestry Department itself.
Moreover, the law prohibits any human activities inside national parks. Anyone caught breaking a branch or even a twig is considered a criminal and must be sent to jail for encroaching on the forest. That was exactly what happened to many Bacho villagers when they wanted to harvest their fruits or cut down their old rubber trees.
You can imagine the local anger.
Land rights conflicts in national parks are not exclusive to the deep South. It is a source of suffering for more than one million farming families nationwide. This has given rise to the community forest movements. But after more than 25 years of local struggle, nothing moved due to the authorities' fierce resistance to the villagers' constitutional rights to co-manage the forests.
In the deep South, land rights conflicts with the government are among the grievances behind the southern violence which feeds on local resentment against unfair top-down control and cultural hegemony from a Buddhist state.
There are reportedly more than 6,000 families in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani whose lands were taken over by the Budo-Sungai Padi National Park. With their calls for land rights often landing them in prison on charges of forest encroachment, can we blame them if they sympathise with the separatists?
Amid intensifying violence, the government finally decided to right the wrong. In a pilot project at Bacho, the villagers were allowed to participate in field surveys to prove their land ownership. The land title deeds were consequently issued for the original owners.
"This is democracy at work," said Muslim community leader and farmer Dueramae Darama. "It also shows the state's sincerity in solving our problems."
Although only 36 Bacho villagers have got their lands back, the government's promise to conduct similar surveys to settle land rights conflicts in other districts has injected new hope for peace.
But however crucial people's participation in resources management is, we still cannot dismiss the dimension of ethnic and religious identity behind the southern Muslims' drive for self-determination, which has turned ugly and violent against state discrimination and suppression.
Despite policy compromise from Bangkok, many southern Muslims still question why they have to wait for mercy from Bangkok.
Returning land to its rightful owners is a step in the right direction. But the road ahead is definitely long and rugged, short of real political decentralisation.
For the southern Muslims, democracy is the ability to chart their own course of change in accordance with their cultural way of life. And if democracy is still elusive in the deep South, so is peace there.
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