Going too far with S44
Finally, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government has decided to resort to the powerful Section 44 of the interim charter to settle the issue of Sor Por Kor land being used for business activities beyond agriculture, including petroleum, renewable energy and mining.
The invocation of the special law is not a surprise but to add mining and petroleum as eligible activities has raised quite a few eyebrows.
The Sor Por Kor land conflict made headlines earlier this year when locals in Chaiyaphum province lodged complaints with the Administrative Court against wind farm operators, which they said were not eligible users of the land as set out under the land reform law. The court then handed down a verdict in favour of the villagers.
The topic triggered widespread debate. The Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) subsequently urged Gen Prayut, who is also head of the National Council for Peace and Order, to invoke the draconian law that would overrule its own legislation. It said easing legal safeguards allowing for the change of land users would help accelerate economic development.
"If we need a fast-track to push forward all major investments to support the Thai economy, Section 44 would be the answer," Sompong Inthong, secretary-general of Alro, said earlier. He was the one who pushed hard for the special law.
In a bid to justify the S44 invocation, the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry said the three business activities which are to benefit from Section 44 apply to only 3,695 rai of Sor Por Kor land, or about 0.09% of the 41 million rai nationwide. In other words, the ministry and Alro want to make us believe that the impact is minimal.
The government also insisted it would focus only on land that is not suitable for agricultural use, while other laws, including those governing town planning and the environment, will not be bypassed.
But that does not mean there should be no concern.
While details about the land plots are few and far between, including whether they are vacant or being occupied by residents, the Chaiyaphum case (among others) has seen conflicts arise between locals and petroleum companies like PTTEP.
It is likely that the change of land use rules will deal a heavy blow to local residents, who are to be stripped of their right to this special land. And it is not out of the question that further land disputes or confrontations between locals and state-backed businesses could take place. There should also be concerns about environmental degradation stemming from such business activities, especially mining and petroleum drilling.
Although the government says that the focus of Section 44 will mainly apply to land that has already been allocated for development in those three industries, the move is likely to result in industrial expansion into land originally slated for farming for the benefit of less privileged groups of people -- the rightful users under the land reform principle.
While the government claims that it cares for the poor and is working hard to narrow the economic gap and eliminate poverty, more often than not it actually does the opposite. The best it has done is offer empty rhetoric. Many of its decisions are highly dubious. The invocation of Section 44 in land reform is a case in point.
In fact, the Prayut government should be aware that by any standards, Section 44 is not legitimate now that the new charter is in place. The use of the special law for contentious issues is not acceptable.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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