Pareena land case plots a legal minefield

Pareena land case plots a legal minefield

SPECIAL REPORT: Authorities in juggling act

All eyes are now on law enforcement officers over whether there will be "double standards" in their handling of an alleged forest land encroachment case by Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) MP Pareena Kraikupt.

The Ratchaburi MP has been accused of encroaching on about 1,700 rai of land used for poultry farming in Ratchaburi's Chom Bung district. The scandal was exposed by Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, a former member of the dissolved Thai Raksa Chart Party, who alleged that parts of her land are classified as Sor Por Kor land -- a type reserved for land reform purposes and distributed to landless farmers. It refers to plots granted by the state to landless and poor farmers for agriculture purposes, with each recipient allotted no more than 50 rai.

The accusation against Ms Pareena prompted an on-site investigation by authorities from the Royal Forest Department (RFD) and Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) which concluded the farm is located on 682 rai of land in which 46 rai encroached in a protected forest area.

Ms Pareena later agreed to hand over the 682-rai land to the Alro while RFD officials lodged a complaint with the Royal Thai Police against her for an alleged encroachment of 46 rai of land in the protected forest area.

However, some members of the public are still not content with the Alro's decision. They demanded the Alro bring more lawsuits against Ms Pareena over alleged encroachment of Sor Por Kor land. Alro later admitted to having no authority to take legal action against her, leaving the matter in the hands of the RFD. Now the Council of State is considering whether Alro can pursue legal action against Ms Pareena or not.

Given the influence of the PPRP, members of the public asked whether there were double standards in the authorities' handling the Pareena case. They asked whether legal action will be taken against powerful politicians and the rich.

But authorities from Alro and RFD rejected the questions and insisted equal justice will be meted out to all regardless of who they are.

They also argued a lack of strict law enforcement against alleged land encroachers highlights Alro's failure to adhere to its principle to allot Sor Por Kor land to poor farmers.

Those who were given the Sor Por Kor land were not allowed to sell to other people. But many defied the ban and sold the land to other people who are not farmers.

However, Vinaroj Sapsongsuk, the Alro secretary-general, told the Bangkok Post that the office now investigating whether all 40 million rai under the office's supervision is still in the hands of the poor.

He said he has ordered his staff to comply with Alro's criteria to allocate 63,000 rai of land every year to poor farmers.

"We have done our best under the limitations. We are making a review of our total land to see whether they are still in the hands of the poor. We will report to the [Agriculture and Cooperatives] ministry within 30 days," Mr Vinaroj said.

Now, the Alro has around two million rai in its hands, which has yet to be allocated to the poor.

However, it is believed that most of the land has already been occupied by local and national politicians, including rich and super-rich families, he said.

The Alro will invite those who are occupying this Sor Por Kor land to declare their possessions to its officers.

If they are poor, they will have a right to possess the land, which must not be over 50 rai. However, if not, the land will have to be returned to Alro, he said.

Mr Vinaroj said his office is enforcing Section 44 issued by the now-dissolved National Council for Peace and Order to take land back from any influential figures who owned over 500 rai.

He said he is working under the order of Capt Thamanat Prompow, Deputy Minister of the Agriculture and Cooperative Ministry, who is in charge of Alro.

"There is no double standard. We have the same practice between the rich and the poor under the same law. We are surveying the Sor Por Kor land countrywide, making sure that it is still in the hands of poor families," he said.

Kasetsart University economics lecturer Decharat Sukkamnerd said he did not expect the Pareena case would make any significant change to the country's land reform policy.

Mr Decharat said the Alro should work more on legal amendments to reassure the public the land is reserved for the poor, not the rich.

To deal with the Sor Por Kor land case, Mr Decharat said Alro should work closely with the Department of Local Administration by asking it to disclose names of those who still possess Sor Por Kor land.

He said this joint cooperation will help authorities keep tabs on the number of actual owners of Sor Por Kor land and who they are. Any land transfer to outsiders who are not farmers can be checked by the system, he said.

"This can prevent a nominee as well. Different land use from the others can be presumed that it is a case of nominee, which legal action must be later taken against any wrongdoers," he said.

It is estimated that there are now about 800,000 families who have not yet accessed the land rights provided by the government.

Land disputes attracted public interest since the military-led government issued orders 64/2557 and 66/2557 against forest encroachers, which promptly drew loud cries from locals. Later, it changed the target to influential groups.

The RFD which is the core unit, said that it has not taken any legal action to the poor, but extreme legal action will be applied to cases involving the rich.

The People's Movement for a Just Society, known as P-Move, said the government should have granted amnesty to locals who encroached the forest, together with providing land to them.

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