Rumour Has It

It is true that Thailand is xenophobic. The history of foreign powers nibbling at and chewing off our former vassal states in the past has caused us to be overly paranoid about foreign land ownership now. It was also annoying to find out that there's always a bigger bully out there with a longer stick.

Yes indeed, there is xenophobia in Thailand. But what this country doesn't have is our own versions of neo-Nazi skinheads or the Ku Klux Klan running around beating up random farang for daring to be white with a pinkish hue in Thailand.

Sure there are those criminals who cheat you and beat you up for your money, but not for your skin colour, unless your skin colour indicates more money. In any case, many of us like the colour of pale skin, we're rather obsessed with it in fact. Also no one screams for you to get out of our country, rather many want more of you to come so they can take more of your money.

So xenophobia is a bit different in Thailand than elsewhere. But no, many Thais do not want foreigners to buy our land. This attitude, of course, prompts the cry of xenophobia like no other whenever the issue comes up.

On Tuesday, ombudsman Siracha Charoenpanij made headlines by claiming that a third of all land in Thailand, or about 100 million rai, is now in foreigners' hands due to proxy ownership which is made possible by legal loopholes and corruption. Oh my, the wrath that followed from foreigners in Thailand, from those holding work permits to those sprinting for visa runs, as well as those just staggering out of Soi Cowboy.

Racist! Xenophobic!

True. True. Both accusations are true. But as a Buddhist brown boy who has lived in the great state of Texas and south of the river in London's Elephant & Castle, and who was refused service in Germany because I looked like I might be Arab or Turkish, I can tell you that you will find these traits everywhere.

And if you, my dear reader, enjoy my sarcasm against Thai failings and Western frailties, then you are likely neither racist nor suffering from xenophobia. However if you enjoy one but get red in the face at the other, then you are likely kind of racist, sort of xenophobic and somewhat hypocritical. We should all love and hate each other more or less equally, and at the same time laugh riotously. And if you don't appreciate sarcasm in general, oh well, can't please everyone.

Now that we've got that settled, let's entertain another thought. When reading a newspaper, the sort of truth you will get is one covered in lawsuit-prevention armour. When listening to a rumour, you get the sort of truth that is multiplied by two to the third power. When listening to a rumour in Thailand, you get the truth multiplied by two, but not to the third power. Some may even say, don't believe the news, believe the rumour.

Thus far, Mr Siracha has yet to provide evidence to support his claim; therefore we shall treat it as a rumour. Could such a rumour be based on racism and xenophobia? Sure, why not? Is there a worrying grain of truth in it? Of course there is, but it has little to do with racism or xenophobia.

The key word here is ''worrying''. This is because we are not talking about a nominee Thai wife and two rai of farmland. There shouldn't be anything to worry about with that.

In fact, I would say let's allow 100% foreign land ownership. As long as you pay tax and are a productive member of society, it shouldn't matter if you stagger out of Soi Cowboy or stumble out of a Ratchadaphisek health spa and entertainment complex.

But Mr Siracha may be hinting at something else quite ''worrying''. Foreign ownership of Thai assets is well practised. Find a corporate lawyer and buy him (or her) a drink or 10. He or she might give you a rundown of the art and science of setting up nominee companies and proxy ownership.

Think Ample Rich. Think Temasek Holdings. Think former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That was just the big fish caught in a web of political intrigues; otherwise no one would have batted an eye.

The case was opened following the 2006 military coup, and promptly closed by the Supreme Court when the Pheu Thai government took charge. But, of course, the coup and the Pheu Thai had nothing to do with those decisions at all. As we all know, Thai laws and courts are the most, independent, ethical and transparent in the world. Really. No, really.

So yes, foreign ownership of Thai assets is common if you have the means and the connections. Legal loopholes and corruption are plentiful, as Mr Siracha pointed out. Land, of course, is an asset, and here is where this column will give you a truth wearing lawsuit-prevention armour.

Naming no names or individuals or countries, the rumour of truth multiplied by two is that foreign countries and enterprises do own large chunks of land in the Kingdom. They own them through nominee ownerships, partnering up with wealthy Thai businesses, exploiting legal loopholes in ineffective Thai laws and reaping benefits from the corruption of politicians and bureaucrats.

Those countries and enterprises bought land for the purpose of agricultural experiments, regional infrastructure and what not. And no, they aren't Western countries, at least not those in the top three. So Tom, Dick and Harry, you may calm down now.

But of course, this is just a rumour. However, even if there is truth in it, Mr Siracha's claim that a third of Thailand is in foreign hands is a gross exaggeration, multiplied by six, to the power of nine. It is even more preposterous than my ''naming no names'' rumour.

Maybe it's true that a third of the land in a certain province largely escaped last year's flood (a grin and a wink); that might be more believable. But really, that too is just a rumour (a smirk and two winks).

However, I provide no evidence to back this up, so take it as a rumour (another wink and a shrug).

Would foreign ownership be a bad thing? I for one believe in Thailand's sovereignty, but I would also take foreign efficiency over Thai ineptitude on most days.

Nevertheless, this isn't about efficiency or ineptitude. The whole scheme of nominees, proxy ownerships, legal loopholes and corruption is bad, bad, bad and bad. This is because it is simply another example of the powerful and wealthy enriching themselves at the expense your average Somchai and Somying, as well as Tom, Dick and Harry.

The problem in the capitalist world in general and Thailand in particular is that wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of too few people. Capitalism is a function of democracy, but it also makes a mockery out of democracy because nothing ensures inequality better than unfair distribution of wealth. Not that I'm against capitalism, I'm just against unchecked capitalism.

In this country, land ownership is concentrated in the hands of the very few, at the expense of the poor farmers who are called the backbone of the country, but in reality are the rags the rich wipe their feet on. There's a fine line between a democracy and an oligarchy. The latter prevails when capitalism runs amuck. Unchecked capitalism checks democracy like a hockey player on steroids _ through the wall.

So yes, Thailand is racist and xenophobic, but no more than anywhere else and much less so than in many, if not most places. Indeed, any tax-paying, productive member of society ought to be able to buy land and own a house, regardless of whether he or she is brown, yellow, black or white with a pinkish hue.

People tend to get caught up in the race, creed or breed cards. But the race card is so passe. A class conflict, now that ought to be the ''in'' thing for this century.

Because the reality is that from the dawn of man to when foreign powers were gobbling up the Siam Empire's vassal states to the present day, race, creed and breed have just been convenient excuses, useful propaganda tools.

The issue is, and always has been: economics.

For instance, the special administrative zone of Sodom by the Sea (otherwise known as Pattaya) is proposing that condominium foreign ownership limits be increased to 70% from 49%, to help keep Thailand competitive once the Asean Economic Community is formed in 2015.

See, now that's forward thinking.


Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Bangkok Post columnist