Land talks must tackle bad laws
Progress in negotiations between the state and poor villagers, led by the land rights advocacy group People's Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), over chronic land-related conflicts shows that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
The meeting on Friday at Government House was chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who leads the national panel comprising high-ranking officials and prominent activists.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appointed Mr Wissanu, legal guru and senior cabinet member, to oversee the issue late last year after poor farmers gathered in Bangkok to protest against the state's harsh land and forest encroachment policies.
P-Move and villagers have been protesting over the past few decades to draw attention to these vital issues. The group wants substantive solutions for the 97 land cases and 15 lawsuits filed against poor villagers by the forest authorities.
Previous governments set up several panels to deal with the problem, which many saw as time-buying tactics. Hence, there was little if any progress made. After the 2014 coup, the military regime introduced its controversial forest reclamation policy, backed by tougher laws and regulations, which led to poor farmers getting thrown in jail and finding themselves trapped in disputes with the authorities.
This time, however, it is hoped the Wissanu-led 35-member panel can make a difference, as it includes PM's Office Minister Tewan Liptapallop along with permanent secretaries and high-ranking officials from 10 ministries, including Interior, Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment. The panel also has representatives of P-Move and its affiliates. In addition, 10 separate sub-panels have been formed to deal with related issues.
Under Mr Wissanu, the panel seems to have put in place a mechanism to break obstacles that hinder the solution-seeking process, while Mr Tewan, in his capacity as deputy chairman, is taking care of some tough cases.
Each of the 10 sub-panels are obliged to report to Mr Wissanu's committee within 90 days. They have been asked to see if the obstacles holding back cases are legal or procedure-related.
The committee will meet every two months to follow up on its resolution.
However, a paradigm shift is required if the Prayut government wants to find a real solution. It is an open secret that state authorities' poor attitude toward villagers is a major obstacle behind this long-standing problem; while the country's forest-related laws mostly fail to recognise people's charter-endorsed right to natural resources.
Also, the forest community law has turned out to be a useless tool as it excludes conservation areas from a designated community forest. This means the law defies the very principle of people coexisting with nature. Then there is the problem with the stiff national park law which has been dealing heavy blows on villagers.
Such unfair laws, state policies and social structures attribute to inequality, which results in land being owned by a few rich families and a large number of poor families getting evicted despite their ancestral rights to the land. Worse yet, some have been thrown in jail and face the maximum penalty without any consideration of the social and historical context. A study by the Thailand Development and Research Institute shows this country is among the 10 most unequal nations in terms of wealth distribution.
While the panel seems open to P-Move's demands, Mr Wissanu still reportedly refuses to intervene in ongoing lawsuits. Instead, he wants the legal process to take its course even though it is widely known these stiff laws cannot be applied to areas that were occupied before they were named national parks. It is unfair that residents have suddenly become culprits and face a harsh penalty for living on land they have occupied for generations.
If they want to tackle this dispute, the authorities must look beyond laws or resorting to political means to settle the conflicts. Instead, they should focus on correcting contentious laws to ensure that people's rights are not infringed upon.
Mr Wissanu's panel must aim high if it is to avoid hitting the stagnation as experienced by its predecessors. Also as a final step, it should explore the possibility of revising unfair laws to achieve justice.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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