After more than a decade of legal fights for land rights, Lamphun farmer Somboon Kaewklang can now breathe a sigh of relief. The Supreme Court last week declared him not guilty of land encroachment. But his struggle for land reform is far from over.
The land in question once belonged to the commons in Lamphun's tambon Nong Pla Sawai in Ban Hong district, where he lives. The area was later allocated for the landless there. Through corruption, however, most of the land ended up in the hands of absentee land speculators.
The locals' protests against the land theft hit a brick wall. So did their calls to return the land to the commons and to prevent it from changing hands again through community ownership. When the economic crisis hit the country in 1997, the Lamphun farmers decided to make use of their old commons, not only to ease poverty and debt, but to spearhead a land reform movement.
To say that the move frightened landlords nationwide was an understatement. Mr Somboon and some 100 land reform farmers were immediately arrested and taken to court. But their idea about community ownership spread like fire, triggering a national movement.
Despite their legal struggles, the Lamphun farmers worked with the landless in other provinces to call for the punishment of corrupt land officials, the annulment of land title deeds acquired through wrongful means, and the legal recognition of community land ownership to prevent land speculation and to involve forest communities in land use and forest conservation.
They also demanded a progressive land tax and the creation of a land bank agency to buy idle farm land in order to distribute property to the landless under the community ownership system. Their movement underscores Thailand's appallingly inequitable land ownership structure which is causing land rights conflicts nationwide.
How can we avoid social unrest when 90% of arable land is in the hands of 10% of the people? How can we expect peace when more than half of the land owned by speculators remains unused while more than 1.5 million farm families are landless and more than 1.2 million families in forest areas face eviction threats?
Mr Somboon and his peers believed their movement made a policy breakthrough when the Abhisit government accepted their community land ownership idea and their other proposals. They were wrong. The Democrats couldn't do anything when the bureaucrats refused to follow through.
When the Yingluck government took control, the Lamphun farmers were delighted, given the new government's repeated promises to fight social injustice. As members of the red-shirt movement, the farmers also believed the new government would be supportive of their cause. But they were dead wrong again.
It was only after their fierce protest that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed to state in her inaugural policy announcement that the government would support community land ownership, set the land bank in motion, and put into place a progressive land taxes.
Not only have her words proven empty, but the Yingluck government has also backed violent evictions of many communities under the land reform project. The land bank agency has been stalled and so has the procedures to authorise some 400 communities to adopt the community land ownership system.
When the land reform movement sent their representatives to ask red-shirt leaders close to the government for help, they were simply told to "wait for democratic change in the power structure first".
Now Mr Somboon and his peers in the land reform network knew better. "We must effect change by ourselves. No one can help us," they said. Hence their campaign to collect signatures to sponsor their own land reform legislation.
They foresee a long, rugged road ahead. Their red-shirt big brothers may tell them to think democracy first, land reform later. But for Mr Somboon and his peers, land reform is democracy from the bottom up. They won't be told to wait.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post
About the author
- Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor