Land ownership will emerge as a challenge for the new government in 2019 as calls for equal land distribution grow louder.
Last year marked a watershed moment for the land problem. During the last Christmas period, the cabinet gave permission to poor forest dwellers to stay on 5.9 million rai of protected forestland.
The gift was part of the government's "collective title deed" land management scheme. Under the scheme, communities receive documents of land ownership that belong solely to them, and in which land ownership is not transferable.
Types of land that fall under the collective title deed scheme include protected forests such as national forest reserves, mangrove forests, and Sor Por Kor -- state land given to farmers and forest communities. Those entitled to the deeds are communities able to prove they had moved onto the land before 2014.
At the same time, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) recently approved the law on land and construction fees, in which different levels of tax collection are based on a scale of land possession in farming, commercial and living land. The tax rate ranges from 0.01% for farmland to 0.7% for commercial land.
At face value, the measure is a symbolic act. However, the land distribution problem is much more complex. The land issue in Thailand is a result of the lopsided structure of land ownership that reflects the widening disparity between rich and poor people.
Eighty per cent of land in the country belongs to 20% of landowners -- the wealthy people. There are 837 people holding over 1,000 rai of land, compared with a population of over 66 million people.
This year, the newly elected government will face calls from forest dwellers and voters to distribute state land to landless people. At the same time, the government will face questions from society on how to deal with landlords and unequal land ownership in the country.
BETTER TAX MEASURES
Duangmanee Laovakul, a lecturer with the Faculty of Economics of Thammasat University, said land allocation justice will not happen if there are no effective tax measures, like advanced land fees or increased fees for unused land. She said the current tax rate, about 0.3% of the evaluated land cost, is too small.
"The latest land and building construction tax will not be enough to force the rich landlords to release the land as the government and policymakers previously believed," said Ms Duangmanee. "The taxes collected are a tiny fraction and provide these landlords conditions for tax deductions. So, the next challenge is for civil society to develop proper tools for land allocation justice."
This might not just be an issue for poor people, but also for middle-class people, who are faced with an increased price of living in urban areas. "The government should regard the land as the country's security, which all Thai people have a basic right to access."
COMMUNITY TITLE DEEDS
The concept of community title deeds, introduced by the Abhisit Administration in 2009, has gained traction. This year's challenge is to turn the concept into long-term policy.
This requires the state to permit strong communities to stay in public forests for 30 years or more. These communities are given the title deeds, confirming the right of the community to stay on the land. In return, residents must help protect the forest and pay a fee to stay. This type of title deed cannot be transferred.
Although the Abhisit government initiated the concept, the military-led government is using it effectively. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha set up a national committee to oversee the land distribution and set goals.
The deeds have already been granted to 140 areas in 57 provinces with 473,050 rai. The Royal Forest Department contributed the largest amount of land with 446,135 rai, followed by a land reform zone with 110,010 rai and 27,435 rai of mangrove land.
BAIT OF POPULISM
In the upcoming election, politicians and political parties will use land distribution in their campaigns.
The clear example is the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Suriya Juangroongruangkit, head of PPRP campaign strategy, yesterday told villagers in Kalasin province that the PPRP will change the Sor Por Kor land documents into title deeds.
"We have listened to the calls of villagers and what we have learned is that they want Sor Por Kor land to be converted into title deeds. If the party is elected, we will turn the land documents into transferable title deeds within three years," he said.
Such a populist ploy is worrying. Sor Por Kor policy was introduced in 1975 as a response to the calls of poor, landless farmers. In practice, Sor Por Kor requires the state to allocate public land -- degraded forest -- to poor villagers for farming, but the policy has proven to be problematic.
Unfortunately, many Sor Por Kor land plots are transferred illegally into private properties, while some villagers transfer their given plots to investors in exchange for money. If this type of land is reintroduced, the challenge will be to prevent the transfer of ownership and make sure the state will not lose public land for political and individual gains.