Buoyed by the backing of the National Council for Peace and Order, the newly appointed head of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation (DNP), Nipon Chotiban, has vowed to try to reclaim more than 370 land plots, covering some 2,743 rai, in Phuket’s Sirinat national park from encroachers. Many of these encroachers are influential figures, real estate tycoons and hoteliers.
Mr Nipon called a press conference in Phuket on Tuesday to announce the launch of a campaign to reclaim the park land. Also present were Phuket governor Maitri Inthusut and representatives from the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), the Anti-Money Laundering Office, the Department of Special Investigation, the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission, the Royal Thai Navy, local police, and the Land Department.
Though belated, the DNP’s move is laudable and warrants public support, as the problem of forest and public land encroachment has been going on unchecked for decades. The Sirinat national park has long been greedily eyed by unscrupulous investors and influential figures. More than 2,700 rai of the park land has already been encroached on and turned into high-end resorts, mansions and condominiums.
What is baffling, and what begs clarification from the authorities, is how the extensive encroachment and subsequent development have been able to occur so easily, as if Phuket is a lawless province where the Money God rules when it comes to land issues.
The ugly truth is that many Phuket officials — from land and park officials to local administrations — are suspected to have been on the take. The NACC’s office in Phuket disclosed that there are 77 cases of alleged corruption involving provincial officials currently under investigation. On top of that, there are several cases implicating former Sirinat park chiefs.
At the press conference on Tuesday, Phuket governor Maitri complained about a lack of cooperation from Sirinat park officials, whom he alleged conspired with other officials to allow land rights documents to be issued illegally for the encroached land plots.
Meanwhile, the director of the Phuket national parks office, Samak Donnachee, accused provincial land officials of attempting to issue land title deeds to three individuals for three land plots covering about 300 rai of forest land, despite protests from other park officials. He said it was not possible that each individual could have possessed 80-90 rai of park land from mere informal Sor Kor 1 land title documents.
Obviously, there are conflicts between the provincial land office and Sirinat park.
A land official told the press conference on Tuesday that his office had asked park officials to help determine whether the three land plots in question, for which his office was about to issue land title deeds, are located in the Sirinat park or not. There has been no response from the park office, so the land office had to go ahead with the land title deed process to avoid being sued for abuse of power in accordance with Article 157 of the Criminal Code.
Cooperation between the Phuket land office and the Sirinat park office is necessary if the land encroachment problem is to be tackled effectively. The provincial governor must play a more active role to make this cooperation possible.
More importantly, the NCPO must be fully supportive of the effort to reclaim Sirinat park land as well as many other encroached land plots in the other national parks, forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.