Pareena probe must set a precedent
The legal case against Palang Pracharath MP for Ratchaburi Pareena Kraikupt, whose poultry farm is suspected of sitting on part of a forest reserve, must be pursued seriously in order to set a precedent. If she is in the wrong, she should face the consequences to show that no one is above the law.
Over the past five years, state authorities have strictly implemented tough forest laws in accordance with the military regime's "reclaim forest lands" policy that saw numerous villagers, as well as land rights advocates, being thrown into jail. However, the arm of the law has yet to reach a handful of rich and powerful people who have encroached upon forest reserves.
Ms Pareena, daughter of veteran politician Tawee, is charged with encroaching on 46 rai of public forest land in Ratchaburi. Her farm in Chom Bueng district stretches over 1,700 rai. If guilty, she could face up to 20 years in prison and a two-million-baht fine. The Ratchaburi MP was also found to own a 691-rai plot in the Khao Son 1 area reserved for poor farmers under the land reform policy.
Ms Pareena, 44, is a Ratchaburi MP in her fourth term. She has run in elections several times under different political parties, including Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai. As the land scandal emerges, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is examining accusations that Ms Pareena was both illegally encroaching on the land and had also failed to declare that property in her assets declaration. The agency said the probe will be wrapped up in April. If found guilty, she faces criminal charges and being stripped of her election rights.
It is quite unexpected that the rising PPRP star and arch-rival of the Future Forward Party's Pannika Wanich could end up in trouble so soon. It's a lesson for politicians that they must have an unblemished past. For Ms Pareena, her membership of the PPRP is of no use now. In the beginning, the main coalition party wanted to protect her, but now that the case has unfolded, with evidence against her, the party has realised that protecting her would impose a high political cost, not just for the PPRP but the entire coalition.
As I said, the state authorities must pursue the Pareena case to the end. The government must send a signal that it will not tolerate land encroachment, and those involved, whether they are politicians or business tycoons, who are let usually let off the hook because of their network of connections with the state, must face legal repercussions.
In fact, Ms Pareena may not be alone. there are allegations that 10 politicians from both the government and opposition camps have illegally occupied state land and hold so-called Por Bor Tor 5 tax documents, or have land in the reform zones which, by law, is preserved for the poor.
The Por Bor Tor 5 landholders, including politicians who mistake the tax document as a land ownership paper, misunderstand what the document actually means. It is just used to show that an individual has used the land plots that are mostly located in a forest reserve. In other words, the document is proof that they are encroachers on state land.
Sor Por Kor, meanwhile, is a scheme for poor farmers. Eligible farmers must have an income not exceeding 30,000 baht per year and ownership must be inherited within a family. Ms Pareena's argument that her chicken farm makes her eligible is just rubbish.
This is not the first time that a Sor Por Kor scandal has been a threat to a government. A similar scandal involving then deputy agriculture minister Suthep Thaugsuban who distributed Sor Por Kor land plots to politicians and people in his circle caused the Chuan Leekpai government to collapse 24 years ago.
When the military regime ran the country, it ordered the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) to tighten the reform system after it found that many ineligible people, including politicians and those with wealth and power, had taken hold of land in reform zones, turning it into golf courses or resorts. Such occupation is against the 1993 cabinet resolution that gave the right to use degraded forest reserve areas to poor farmers.
During the regime's time in charge, Alro reported that it had allocated 36 million rai out of a total 40 million rai of Sor Por Kor land to farmers. Half of the remaining land, totalling 2 million rai under its jurisdiction is being demarcated and in the process of being handed out to farmers.
The office has complained of loopholes that make it possible for ineligible parties, including politicians and rich, influential people, to freely occupy the remaining land, using it for non-agricultural activities in breach of the Sor Por Kor principle.
Forest land encroachment reflects a failure in forest law enforcement, especially when that privilege is taken up by wealthy and influential families as well as politicians and state officials to illegally access a forest reserve. Some have been charged, but the number is small compared to the many poor farmers who have been jailed or fined for the same offence.
While the authorities get tough with the poor, forest encroachment by the wealthy is widespread. With the help of unscrupulous state officials, these people have occupied plots with beautiful views, developing them into tourist resorts, hotels and entertainment parks, like those in Wang Nam Khieo, Pak Chong and Khao Yai districts, as well as Nakhon Ratchasima, Chiang Mai, Chantaburi, Phuket, Kanchanaburi and Surat Thani's Samui island. The law has been openly breached.
The Forest Department said forest cover has steadily increased due to its strict anti-encroachment measures under the regime's reclaim forest land policy. According to the department, the country's forest areas in 2018 covered 102.4 million rai, a 330,000-rai increase from the previous year. With the additional cover, which equals the total land in Phuket, forest areas account for 31.58% of the country's total land.
Yet, the Forest Department and relevant agencies need to do more to catch the real culprits, those with money and power, to ensure that their efforts are not just a flash in the pan.
On top of that, they must guarantee that there is no foul play in the Pareena case.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.