A court saga over land ownership involving Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Progressive Movement, suggests managing state land can be a messy business.
Mr Thanathorn sought court rulings on some land in Ratchaburi's Chom Bung district more than 40 years ago. As he purchased the plot several years ago -- land which had changed hands numerous times -- he was in possession of Nor Sor 3 Kor ownership papers. One of the previous owners was the company Mitrphol.
However, the Land Department decided last year to revoke his land documents on the grounds that it sits in a forest reserve. Apart from Mr Thanathorn, his mother and another family member also acquired plots of land in a similar fashion. They claim they are innocent parties who have been wronged as they purchased it in good faith.
Mr Thanathorn then asked the court to nullify the revocation order.
However, in its Sept 28 verdict, the court refused to reverse the decision, saying the Land Department was at fault for issuing the document for forest land. As such, Mr Thanathorn was forced to give up his ownership.
Since he acquired the land legally, the court ordered the department to take responsibility for its carelessness and pay Mr Thanathorn 4.9 million baht in compensation. The verdict has, in effect, cleared his name of any association with forest encroachment.
This case yet again shows the department is not suffering from any shortage of scandals. The process of issuing land ownership deeds in several provinces, particularly tourism hotspots, is often riddled with fraud, while agencies tasked with forest protection lack teeth.
Such malpractice is rampant in provinces like Phuket and Nakhon Ratchasima.
Back in 2016, the Land Department's image was tainted when its officials were involved in illegally issuing title deeds for forest land in Phuket's Thalang district and some areas in Phangnga.
The case was sufficiently high profile to the extent the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) stepped in.
Public attention intensified as one defendant, a retired officer who worked at the Phuket Land Office at the time the multi-million-baht fraud took place, died in a DSI detention cell in Bangkok while the investigation was underway. The DSI claimed it was suicide, but the bereaved family suspected foul play.
Suspicion quickly mounted as the state prohibits land ownership documents for areas situated on slopes. Yet the owners in this case managed to obtain the papers.
Some believe the illegal issuance of land documents in Phuket may have taken place decades before the land changed hands.
Part of the land in Phuket linked to these allegedly falsified land papers has been turned into a top tourist attraction. Over the years, people's groups have called for an investigation into dubious cases of land ownership, but state authorities have been reluctant to comply.
In the face of such headwinds, forest encroachment remains a threat. Information released by the Park, Wildlife and Plants Department shows there were more than 1,570 cases of encroachment in 2019, covering more than 21,800 rai. The agency must take a proactive approach to tackling this problem.
Mr Thanathorn's case has set an example. The authorities should reexamine all the dubious land documents, including those in Phuket, to see if any fraud occurred and take action where possible.