Who is poor and landless?
Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompow's decision to grant land reform rights to a local politician appears to be a repeat of a similar scandal, which spelled the end of a Democrat-led coalition government about 24 years ago.
This government could suffer a similar fate if it fails to clarify the deputy minister's questionable act.
On Tuesday, Capt Thamanat handed over Sor Por Kor land rights certificates to 335 poor and landless farmers.
These "land reform" plots, according to law, are meant to be only assigned to landless farmers to make a living.
Yet one of the recipients turned out to be Samatcha Angchuan, a vice-chairman of the Krabi Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) Council and a former Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) candidate in the last general election. He was granted 16 rai of land.
Mr Samatcha claimed this land had been occupied by his grandfather more than 40 years ago, and was then handed down to his father, who planted oil-palm trees on it.
The land was later declared to be part of the land-reform zone, and since he inherited it, he said he should be eligible for the Sor Por Kor rights.
Capt Thamanat, meanwhile, defended Mr Samatcha, saying that if his family had lived on the plot before the land-reform law was enacted and the size of the land is under 50 rai, then he has the right to continue using it and receive the certificate regardless of whether he is poor or not.
The deputy minister's explanation, however, is in clear conflict with the Agricultural Land Reform Office's regulation, which specifies that only landless farmers who are poor and want to farm to earn a living, those who have graduated in agriculture or are descendants of farming families who do not have enough money are eligible.
So, is the vice-chairman of a PAO Council considered a landless and poor farmer? Probably not.
Last week, Capt Thamanat stirred more confusion over another land scandal concerning Pareena Kraikupt, a PPRP MP for Ratchaburi. She is being investigated over claims that 900 rai of her estate falls under Sor Por Kor status.
On Wednesday, he defended Ms Pareena, saying she may escape forest encroachment charges because her family had lived on the land prior to the enactment of land reforms.
But then on Friday, he said this land can be seized if the plot is found to be in the land-reform zone.
His granting of these land rights to Mr Samatcha recalls another scandal in 1994, when then deputy agriculture minister Suthep Thaugsuban handed over reform land rights certificates to 486 farmers.
Later, it was found that the recipients included 10 wealthy people from Phuket. Apparently, these people also claimed to be descendants of farmers.
This scandal resulted in a no-confidence motion against the Democrat-led coalition, which forced then-prime minister Chuan Leekpai to dissolve the parliament and pave the way for the 1995 elections.
Mr Samatcha's case will certainly be a thorn in the government's side as it seeks to overcome the controversy.
The Prayut Chan-o-cha administration has to provide a clear explanation on whether such reform land rights can be granted to those who are not poor or landless farmers, and if the answer is yes, then it should prepare for a strong grilling in parliament and possibly a political downfall.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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