End to Phuket's land scandals demands bold steps

End to Phuket's land scandals demands bold steps

The Phuket condo saga which involves firebrand politician Sira Jenjaka, a Palang Pracharath Party MP for Bangkok, and a police officer has put the chronic land issues in this tourist province under the spotlight.

Mr Sira has said that he received complaints from Phuket residents living near the project about subsidence and excess water flow from the construction site onto 17 rai of their land. He alleged that a group of influential people were involved in the project and, as a result, local officials dared not take action.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has decided to investigate the allegations while Karon municipality has ordered the suspension of construction.

At the same time, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has also launched a probe and encouraged the public to submit evidence about irregularities in regards to the land ownership process, especially since the agency aims to replicate the "Phuket model" with land scandals in other areas.

We must admit the fact that since Phuket has become a top tourist destination, demand for land in this island province has skyrocketed over the past decade.

The province has more than 1,800 hotels with more than 93,400 rooms and it welcomes about 14.3 million tourists last year. Tourism has generated an impressive 400 billion baht in revenues this year, an increase from 340 billion baht last year.

The high demand for land has resulted in inflated land prices. The cost of the plot on which the controversial Peak condo project is located on -- though having only Nor Sor 3 Kor ownership documents -- has jumped from 50 million baht to 140 million baht in a short period. The price of the land plots would be higher if there were land title deeds.

Land-related graft comes in all kinds of forms in Phuket where the turnover of land officials is high as many who don't want to get involved with graft and irregularities ask to transfer elsewhere despite working in the province only for a short period. The role of influential people makes things complicated.

Some officials who fail to leave in time spend their retirement struggling in court because of land scandals, mostly for falsifying land documents or issuing ownership documents for areas in forest reserves, public land, or land with a 45-degree slope for development projects.

When the cases are exposed, the projects are suspended. However, some are discreetly brushed aside when public attention has faded. This has been made possible with the help of land officials.

There was a notorious case known as Sor Kor Bin (flying Sor Kor ownership documents) in which land officials illegally switched documents issued for land plots in neighbouring provinces for use in Phuket.

Moreover, there are cases of foreigners who wanted to settle in Phuket falling victim to bad agents with the help of crooked officials as they had no idea the plots they paid for were not available for sale under law.

Land irregularities in Phuket development projects cost bureaucrats and politicians alike their jobs. Among them was Suthep Thaugsuban, previously deputy agriculture minister who was disgraced over the Sor Por Kor land reform scandal involving his aides in Phuket, including Anchalee Wanich Thepabut who received a land reform windfall, despite their ineligibility.

This notorious case triggered the end of the Democrat-led coalition government as a no-confidence censure, initiated by the so-called Group of 16, prompted Mr Chuan Leekpai, who was prime minister, to dissolve parliament to pave the way for elections in 1995.

It is unfortunate that the Sor Por Kor land issue was politicised without any real intention of tackling the problem. There were reports about the release of mouse deer in particular reform land plots to mislead the public that the area was pristine forest. Several politicians who inspected the area became tools for those on opposite sides to discredit others, rather than pushing for solutions.

We will have to wait and see if the DSI or the NACC have fangs in the Peak condo saga or if it will just be a flash in the pan action with some time-buying tactics in the hope that the issue will be forgotten?

Tourism has generated huge revenue for this province, but it has also resulted in massive environmental degradation with overuse of natural resources that has been made possible thanks to lax law enforcement. It will require strong will and bold action to put an end to the problem and it must start now.

Nauvarat Suksamran is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

Nauvarat Suksamran

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