Poor suffer as regime goes back to old ways
If you want to get Kanya Pankiti going, ask her about the coup-makers' self-proclaimed mission to return happiness to Thais. "Are you serious?" she asks. "What happiness? Can't you see people on the ground are suffering across the country?"
Kanya, 54, a grassroots land rights activist from Trang, is joining her land reform peers from different provinces to protest against the government's plan to dissolve the Land Bank, an agency with the mandate to secure land for the landless.
"That's not all," her anger gushed out. "The government is also going back on its pledge to support collective land ownership to solve land rights conflicts in forest areas. Worse, they are cracking down on forest communities in all parts of the country with their draconian forest expansion scheme.
"When they seized power, they promised land reform. Look what they're doing now. They're punishing the poor, the same way previous governments did. Only now they have guns ready to do it more forcefully and to create a climate of fear."
Except for a handful of student activists, most civic groups prefer to keep silent under military rule. Even politicians and hardline red-shirt activists are lying low. "You are just an ordinary folk," I said to Kanya. "Why dare protest and put yourself in danger?"
"When we are being sent to the funeral pyres, why be afraid of the fire?" the mother of two retorted, using a southern rhetorical saying.
"One thing they forget. When pushed to the limits, people have no choice. We must push fear aside to protect our livelihoods."
It is the same answer I have heard from other grassroots movements. For the past 20 months since the coup, they have been watching the military government use its power to roll back their many hard-won policies for more local say in natural resources management. Discontent is brewing nationwide.
For over 400,000 small-scale fishermen, the last straw for them is the new fisheries law which limits their fishing areas while failing to stop commercial trawlers from destroying the sea. They promise a mass protest unless the law is fixed.
Grassroots and civic groups also oppose the government's policy to allow mining in all areas including pristine forests, its push for special economic zones where locals will be evicted and its willingness to let business interests exploit forest reserves, as well as its all-out support for coal-fired power plants and other megaprojects that will put both public and environmental health at risk.
The government crackdown on ThaiHealth which funds civic and grassroots group empowerment activities is also viewed as an effort to weaken opposition to government projects.
Though no stranger to state hostility, citizen groups were still caught off-guard when the government last week invoked Section 44 to bypass all laws to press ahead with all megaprojects and policies. For them, such total disregard for local people's and environmental concerns to serve business interests first and foremost is their breaking point.
But like every grassroots protests in the past, at the forefront is always the land rights and land reform movement.
"Our country is going backward in time, not years, but decades," said Direk Kong-ngern, chairman of the Northern Farmers' Federation.
Thailand's unequal land distribution is among the most scandalous in the world. Over 80% of land is owned by the richest 10%. One billionaire owns more than 630,000 rai of land alone when the landless and those who own less than one rai of land make up 42% of the entire country.
Meanwhile, over 10 million people live in forest areas, leading to fierce land rights conflicts. Pmove, the land reform movement to which Kanya and Direk belong, has made community land ownership, the land bank and the progressive land tax cornerstones of their movement.
After nine prime ministers and 11 cabinets, the Abhisit government -- albeit reluctantly -- succumbed to grassroots pressure to institutionalise community land deeds to help old forest communities in exchange of forest conservation. Under this system, they cannot sell land to outsiders. It also set up the Land Bank to secure land for those who have none.
Unwilling to continue the Abhisit government's policy, the Yingluck administration stalled both the collective land ownership and the Land Bank. The military government initially promised to continue community land title deeds, but that did not last long.
On April 8 last year, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gave Mae Tha community in Chiang Mai the right to collective land ownership in a grand ceremony.
Five months later, he still lauded community land ownership as an effective way to stop forest encroachment and conflicts between state and people.
On Dec 23, Gen Prayut formally crushed it, announcing he would revoke community land ownership in all parts of the country.
As for the Land Bank, the government initially agreed to revive it. Then it delayed the appointment of board members, rendering it unable to operate until recently. Then the axe fell with the decision to dissolve it, citing its lack of performance.
Thanks to the Pmove protest yesterday, the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission has decided to allow the bank to start using its budget to buy land for the landless, but only until June this year, when its first five-year tenure expires.
Whether the bank will be continued or dissolved depends solely on the prime minister's decision.
"We have breathing space now, but many uncertainties lie ahead," said Prayong Doklamyai, a land reform activist.
"Our struggle is far from over," said Kanya.
Community land ownership must continue, she insisted. Over 200 old forest communities were eligible to receive the right to stay under the collective land ownership system which has been suspended.
But the most immediate problem right now is the regime's campaign to "rescue the forests" which has led to violent forest evictions in various parts of the country.
Many forest communities with initial permission to stay on their old land under the collective land ownership programme are also targeted.
"Armed personnel came to cut our rubber trees in our mixed forests and evicted the people from where they had been living for generations. Homes are destroyed and families are broken up," said Kanya. "Can you call that giving people happiness?"
Their bitterness is deepened all the more by the government's plan to evict the poor to pave the way for special economic zones with incentives that include 99-year-long leases and a sharp cut in land rental fees.
"The government is going back to its old ways of top-down central control to serve business interests without listening to local grievances," said Kanya.
"The military should realise we are not part of colour-coded politics. We have been fighting with officialdom under every government for our land rights. If the problems persist, if the government refuses to heed our voices, our needs, our struggle must continue."
Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.