Pareena saga a test of land reform resolve
When Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow defended Pareena Kraikupt -- a Palang Pracharath Party member and MP for Ratchaburi who is being grilled in a high-profile land scandal -- by suggesting that she may escape forest encroachment charges because her family "had lived on the disputed plots prior to the enactment of land reforms", I could sense his triumph, as well as relief.
In a media interview yesterday, the deputy minister cited Ms Pareena's side of the story. He said that her family had occupied the plot in Ratchaburi's Chom Bung district since 1946 -- way before the Forestry Department handed the plots over to be redistributed by the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) in 1993.
The story sounds pretty clear and straightforward to the minister, so much so that Capt Thamanat said that in his view, all accusations against Ms Pareena should be dropped. Her family, unsurprisingly, said that the allegations made against Ms Pareena are politically motivated.
Capt Thamanat, who has no known background in land and forest laws, appeared to have forgotten about one important fact -- that not any old plot can be transformed into land reform area. No, it's not that simple.
In theory, only forests and land which lie within a national forest reserve can be reclassified as land reform zones, with jurisdiction switching from the forest department to Alro.
In theory, land reform is a state policy that seeks to ease land conflicts between the state and villagers who may have -- knowingly or unknowingly -- occupied forest land.
In theory, this policy, which stipulates land usage but not its sale, was put in place to ensure that villagers would have a plot of land to farm on so they can stand on their own feet.
That is why Ms Pareena said the land in question -- some 1,000 rai in total -- was handed over to Alro by the Forestry Department in 1993, despite her family having "occupied the plots since 1946". The MP also listed the disputed land as a part of her assets, which she declared with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
The Forest Management Bureau 10 in Ratchaburi has vowed to probe the matter, as there are suspicions that some of her plots may still be classified as forest land.
Except for the 1993 jurisdiction transfer between the two state agencies, the remainder of the story -- including the year the family acquired the land in question -- needs to be scrutinised. In fact, there are many questions which the MP has yet to clarify. For example, from whom did she get the land from and how? What was the status of the plots when she acquired the plots?
And if the plots were indeed forests, she must have committed forest encroachment. Is she then, a forest encroacher? Given the amount of questions which remain unanswered, it is not an exaggeration to suspect that there could be irregularities in the way Ms Pareena acquired the plots.
Ms Pareena is said to have presented the so-called Por Bor Tor 5 land tax documents to local authorities as proof that she has used the land she occupied.
Many people -- including Ms Pareena herself -- don't seem to understand that land tax documents cannot be used as proof of land ownership. While they can be used to supplement other documents, their use may not necessarily be lawful.
Ms Pareena is benefiting from double standards -- not only has she been given multiple chances to explain her side of the story, but she is showered by compassion and kindness not only by Capt Thamanat, but also by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.
Her treatment is a direct contrast to the way the government treats poor villagers over this same issue. Many have suffered under brutal measures imposed by the government, while some others have even been thrown in jail. Remember the "Mushroom Couple" in Kalasin? Or the residents of Ban Subwai in Chaiyaphum? The list is endless.
In any case, we must continue to keep an eye on the probe, even though the moral support from Gen Prawit and Capt Thamanat looks set to make the investigation results quite predictable.
In my opinion, it's necessary that those involved in the inquiry must begin the process by asking the right question, that is: Does MP Pareena -- with nearly 170 million baht in declared assets -- qualify as a land reform programme recipient? We don't need a scientist's brain to realise that she is too rich to benefit from the state's land reform policies.
The case is a test of the state's commitment to land and forest management. For the time being, until the probe results are released, Ms Pareena will be seen as either a forest encroacher who has successfully escaped the arms of the law, or an unlawful beneficiary of the government's land reform programme.
Editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.