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Monday, February 14, 2011
Urgent need for land reform
Is an effort to cap land ownership at 50 rai
per household a pipe dream in a country where 90% of the land is
already owned by the richest 10%?
Is it possible to usher in a ceiling
on land ownership and a progressive land tax law when legislators in
both the House of Representatives and the Senate own an average of over
100 rai of land per person?
When I raised my doubts to land reform advocate Permsak Makarapirom,
he shot back: "If not, are you ready to see Thailand on fire?"
It is not a threat, he added. The country's current political
turmoil is rooted in structural injustice which has fuelled popular
discontent nationwide. At its core is the scandalous land ownership
system. "We must undo it while we still have time. Otherwise, we're
Land ownership ceiling is one of the many land reform measures
proposed by the National Reform Committee earlier this week. Mr Permsak
chairs the committee's land reform working group.
Other measures include progressive land tax for those who have more
than the 50-rai ceiling, the setting up of a transparent, online
database of land ownership nationwide, as well as a land bank to buy
idle land from private owners and to manage the massive acreage of idle
state land for distribution to landless farmers. Mr Permsak is not
exaggerating when he describes the country's land ownership structure
According to the Land Institute Foundation, about 6 million people
or 10% of the population own 90% of the country's land. Yet 70% of
these plots are speculative land left idle or under-used by absentee
landlords. The economic damage from idle land is estimated at 127
billion baht a year.
Isn't it scandalous when such land excess among the privileged few
is allowed while 40% of the farmers do not even have their own land or
do not have enough to become self-reliant?
Isn't it scandalous when 4.8 million farmers lack land to till while
30 million rai of farmland cannot be used because it is locked in
The national policy to expand official forest zones by annexing
villagers' farmland has also caused landlessness and mass fury at state
injustice nationwide. While land and forestry authorities turn a blind
eye to the rich amassing scenic forest land illegally, the national
park laws have outlawed 2,700 communities where 1.2 million villagers
have lived for generations.
During 2007-8 alone, nearly 10,000 villagers were arrested and sent
to jail. Many of them were forest dwellers arrested right on their
In the restive South, land rights conflicts with the Buddhist Thai
state are among the chief resentments of the ethnic Malay Muslims
there. How to defuse the political explosion ahead - not only in the
deep South but across the country?
Apart from land ownership restructuring, the prescriptions from the
National Reform Committee include strict agricultural zoning and
community land ownership to keep farmland in farmers' hands. They are
prohibited, however, from renting out their land or leaving it idle, to
ensure land productivity.
The villagers who have been arrested under the unjust forestry law must also be released, Mr Permsak urged.
Easier said than done, you might say. But Mr Permsak insists it is
possible if people come to realise the catastrophes ahead without land
To start with, the present generation of farmers who average 50
years of age, will be the country's last. Their children will no longer
farm due to low returns from tenant farming. New farmers, meanwhile,
have no access to farmland due to high prices. Agro-giants might
benefit from all this, but at the huge cost of community breakdown
nationwide. Imagine the frustration, the anger, from the colossal
influx of the rural poor into a biased system that chains them aside
while the rich enjoy national wealth at centre stage. Actually the fury
of the masses has already been unleashed, resulting in the breakdown of
consensus and endless political turmoil.
Land reform, despite the obstacles, is indeed key to structural
reform to extinguish the fire that threatens to engulf Thailand.
Dismiss it at our own peril.
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