SAMUI / ENCROACHMENT BACKLASH
Land ownership probe ordered
SUPAPHONG CHAOLAN & PRADIT RUANGDIT
Land ownership documents and land-holdings on Samui are under scrutiny, following a scandal involving a foreign firm's holdings. Surat Thani Governor Wichit Wichaisan has told staff to start checking ownership papers, amid rising concerns over spreading land and forest encroachment by tourist resorts.
The move follows an uproar over an advertisement by ''The Peak'' property project, left on a website and in a property trading guide, placed by foreign firm Samui Property Solution. The project, which spans 514 rai on Kao Dang mountain, sells land for eight million baht a rai, amounting to over 4.1 billion baht.
The governor said the checks would take some time.
Paitoon Lertgrai, of the provincial land office, said the checks would show how each land holder had acquired property and see if any land plots fell into the hands of foreigners, including those registered as entities.
Under the law, only a company with foreigners holding up to 49% of shares and Thai partners holding 51% can acquire land.
Mr Paitoon said his office has asked the Commercial Ministry to check the shareholdings of property firms on the island to ensure foreign shareholdings do not exceed the legal limit. Land would be taken back from any firms that breached the law.
Meanwhile, Koh Samui district chief Decha Kangsanant and land official Charoen Chanpan claimed that ''The Peak'' operator defied an order by the Surat Thani provincial office that construction work be suspended pending the land ownership probe.
Concrete roads have been laid through the mountain, though construction was allowed only on the 198-rai low-///// areas. Project administrator Suthep Wangdan claimed to have obtained permission from tambon Koh Samui municipality. He also claimed to have obtained a Nor Sor 3 land ownership document over the plot as long ago as 1989.
Mr Charoen said the district land office was gathering rights papers for inspection.
Caretaker Natural Resources and Environmental Minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat will take an investigation team to inspect the area tomorrow.
He raised concerns about forest encroachment on the island, saying local authorities were moving too slowly to tackle the problem.
A regulation to curb mountain encroachment would be introduced. It would apply in areas higher than 150 metres above sea level, and restrict the height of the buildings to no more than six metres, with each development plot limited to 75 square metres.
ENCROACHMENT / SAMUI DEVELOPMENT
Land scandal officials face probes
Surat Thani _ Officials thought to have been involved in The Peak land scandal on Koh Samui have been recommended for disciplinary punishment. Caretaker Natural Resources and Environment Minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat said yesterday that he has asked the Land Department to transfer Suwat Vichaidit, a former Surat Thani land official, and investigate him for any wrongdoing.
Mr Suwat faced a lightning transfer to an inactive post at the department yesterday.
The minister also sought the Interior Ministry's cooperation to order a disciplinary inquiry against former Samui district chief Theerayuth Iemtrakul.
Mr Suwat, a land official in Samut Sakhon's Ban Phaeo district before the transfer, formerly worked in the Samui land office. He was accused of issuing land documents on Koh Samui resulting in the encroachment onto land by developers.
Mr Theerayuth was Samui district chief before being promoted to assistant provincial chief of Surat Thani. The environment ministry felt he neglected his duty, making encroachment possible.
Mr Yongyuth said his ministry will press charges today against Suthep Wangdan, The Peak project operator, over false claims about the ownership status of the resort's land.
The transfer came after Mr Yongyuth inspected Koh Samui and found massive encroachment of forest land on the island. A survey found that over 1,700 rai out of 6,900 rai of forest area on the island had been cleared, and some of the encroached areas had been turned into a land development project.
The inspection followed an uproar over an advertisement by The Peak property project, on a website and in a property trading guide, placed by foreign firm Samui Property Solutions.
The project, which spans 514 rai on Koh Samui's Kao Dang mountain, sells land for eight million baht a rai, amounting to more than 4.1 billion baht.
The project developer had named two Thai companies, Great Hills International and Ratchathani, which are subsidiaries of Bangkok-based Piyavate Hospital Group, as owners of the land.
An inquiry was being conducted to see if the two firms were owned by Thais.
A group of local residents yesterday submitted a complaint to the minister opposing the distribution of ownership documents on mountainous areas of the island.
They claimed investors had brought several fully-grown coconut trees onto the land to show it was being utilised and to claim ownership over the encroached plots on Kao Dang mountain.
TRT politicians in Samui land grab
ANUCHA CHAROENPO SUPAPHONG CHAOLAN
Many Thai Rak Thai party politicians are involved in forest encroachment and land speculation on the resort island of Koh Samui, a member of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said yesterday.
Chaiyapan Praphasawat said illegal land grabs had increased across the island in the five years since the Thai Rak Thai party won power in 2001.
Mr Chaiyapan, a member of the commission's sub-panel on land, water and forest problems, was responding to a call by caretaker Natural Resources and Environment Minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat for the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) to look into the growing land scandal.
Mr Chaiyapan called on the caretaker government to take serious and sincere action to bring those involved to justice as quickly as possible.
He said the sub-panel, chaired by rights commissioner Sunee Chairos, had received a flood of complaints from Koh Samui residents over the past three years.
The villagers were afraid they would have no place to live one day if nothing was done to stop the rich and influential from continuing their land grab, Mr Chaiyapan said.
"The information we have has implicated well-known politicians of this government in land encroachment," he said.
The politicians, whose names were not revealed, acquired the land through nominees who would later sell the property to foreign developers at high prices.
It was apparent that the land acquisitions were made with the use of inside information as the politicians knew well in advance about the state development plan.
However, there was no evidence to prove that the villagers were forced to sell the land against their will.
The politicians and land developers had bribed land officials to issue land ownership documents, including nor sor 3 kor papers, for areas designated as public land, he said.
They should not have allowed the land to change hands as the original owners had no land documents, he said.
"The villagers only had land use tax papers. How could they then sell their land?"
Mr Chaiyapan also urged the DSI to look into other suspect areas, particularly the development of land under the government's Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration, which was the subject of many complaints.
Pol Maj-Gen Latthasanya Piensomparn, commander of the natural resources and environment crime division, said the issuance of land documents for many plots on Khao Duang Nok and Khao Dang mountains on the island appeared to be illegal. However, it would be difficult to find the evidence needed to bring the wrongdoers to justice.
Songsak Trichum, assistant village head of tambon Bopud in Koh Samui district, said more than half of land ownership papers on Koh Samui were unlawfully issued.
He was concerned that the next generation of Thais on the island would have no land to make a living.
Sunthorn Watcharakuldirok, head of a panel investigating the issuing of land documents on Koh Samui, said the probe had found that Suwat Vichaidit, a former Surat Thani land official, had issued a title deed for a 96-rai plot on Khao Duang Nok mountain to Suthep Wangdan, developer of The Peak property project.
The land in question did not have a sor khor 1, a lower level land use paper required for issuing a land title deed.
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