Thailand’s economic crunch, protests cast land rights struggle in new light

Rice farmers in Chiang Mai. Photo: Takeaway / CC BY-SA

As Thailand’s economy cracks under COVID-19, land ownership and access are key to many communities’ ability to ride out the crisis. Amid ongoing popular protests, Thailand must decide how to address its stark wealth gap and the needs of low-income rural communities.

Editorial

As Thailand weathers the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the struggles of people around the country to secure their land rights are becoming increasingly crucial. At least a third of the country’s population is employed in agriculture, though many more may depend on land for subsistence farming or harvesting forest products. But many groups face threats to their land tenure from government policies and private development. By some estimates, there are over 8 million landless people in Thailand—over 11% of the population, in a country with the fifth-wealthiest monarchy in the world. This likely doesn’t include Thailand’s large migrant population—as many as 4-5 million people, most of them Burmese.

Thailand has gone months with no local cases of COVID-19 and the country is now swept up in a wave of pro-democracy protests, led by students demanding a new constitution and making groundbreaking calls to reform the country’s monarchy. 

But the country’s success against the pandemic has come at a cost: the latest report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) projects that Thailand will see its GDP shrink by 8% in 2020, down from 4-5% growth in recent years.

Thailand’s extreme economic inequality means that its upper classes are better prepared to deal with and better insulated from the economic impacts of the pandemic. This is reflected in the distribution of land ownership: according to civil society groups, around 80% of land in Thailand is owned by just 20% of the population. Thailand’s wealthy have also been getting wealthier still in recent years. In 2019, the richest 1% controlled 17.5% more of Thailand’s wealth than in 2000.

Thailand’s lower income brackets, on the other hand, are struggling. Between the first and second quarter of 2020, the number of people in Thailand living on less than US$5.50 a day—the World Bank threshold for “economic insecurity”—more than doubled, from 4.7 million to 9.7 million. 

The government has also issued 5,000 baht (US$161) relief payments for the past few months to over 15 million people, though nearly 29 million people had applied for the program as of mid-May. In addition, the government approved one-time cash payments of 15,000 baht for the country’s 10 million farming households.

Ko Yo, Mueang Songkhla District, Songkhla. Photo: กิตติ เลขะกุล / CC BY

Rural communities struggle for land titles, tenure as the economy slumps

But despite this assistance, many rural communities across Thailand face threats to the land they depend on for food or income due to government policies and projects—jeopardizing their livelihoods at a time when the country’s economy is approaching its breaking point.

In southern Thailand’s Songkhla province, a special economic zone (SEZ) threatens the land and fisheries that thousands of people depend on for income, according to the Chana Rak Thin Network. Amid the country’s coronavirus lockdown in May, protestors successfully delayed hearings for the approval of the Songkhla SEZ, saying it will hurt coastal ecosystems and jeopardize the land and resources of locals. The Songkhla SEZ will cost an estimated 19 billion baht (US$595 million) and proponents boast that it will create 100,000 jobs in the area.

In Sura Thani province, just north of Songkhla, local farming communities have occupied hundreds of acres of land to prevent it from being given over to palm oil plantations. 

“We have no other land. So what choice do we have—this is all we have,” Somruedee Bunthonglek, a resident of the Klong Sai Pattana area, told Reuters.

Many farmers in Sura Thani risk losing their land because they have been unable to get communal land titles from the government. As in areas across the country, residents traditionally rely on communally-managed land, shared through customary land tenure systems. 

Groups in the area like the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand now back the ongoing pro-democracy protests.

“The protesters realize farmers are struggling, and that we need to amend the constitution and the land laws,” Pienrat Boonrit, president of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand in Surat Thani’s Phoem Sap, told Reuters

“The system does not address the root cause of the problem, which is the unequal land distribution. It is out of frustration that we have occupied land—there is no other choice.”

Sai Thong National Park. Photo: Chaiyathat / CC BY-SA

Those pushing for land tenure face harassment, kidnapping

Many people in rural areas face legal harassment for attempting to claim their land. Last year, 14 people from Chaiyaphum province’s Sap Wai village were convicted for encroaching on land in Sai Thong National Park, under the Forest Reclamation Policy enacted by the military dictatorship in 2014. The Sap Wai residents have lived on their land for generations. They face up to four years in prison and their case is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Disappearances have also become a regular threat to those speaking out about land and human rights in Thailand. In August 2019, community organizer Eakachai Itsaratha was abducted by a group of men on his way to a public hearing about a rock quarry in southern Thailand’s Phatthalung province.

It appears that only one case of forced disappearance has been brought before a Thai court in recent years. Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was kidnapped and killed in 2004, likely for his role in lawsuits over police torture of Muslim detainees in southern Thailand. Five police officers accused of involvement in his disappearance were acquitted in 2015. 

The case is hindered by a Supreme Court decision ruling which says his family can’t bring charges over the crime because without a body, there is no evidence that he is dead and unable to represent himself in court.

This ruling is playing out again as the family of indigenous Karen land activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen push for justice. Billy disappeared in April 2014 after he was arrested by national park officials in Kaeng Krachan National Park for alleged illegal honey harvesting. Billy was travelling to meet with residents of Pong Luk Bang Kloy village, located in the park, about forced evictions and land rights issues in preparation to file a lawsuit against park superintendent Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn.

The case largely stalled until September 2019, when officers with the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found charred bone fragments in an oil drum under a bridge in the area. DNA testing showed the fragments were a match for Billy. The DSI moved to charge Chaiwat and three other suspects with premeditated murder, illegal confinement and concealing a victim’s body.

But in January, the state prosecutor dropped all charges in the case, except one of “official misconduct”, due to a lack of evidence that Billy is dead. Billy’s wife, Pinnapa Prueksapan, has since appealed the decision to the attorney general and asked the provincial court to declare him legally dead.

As Thailand’s economy continues to crack under the pressure of COVID-19, access to land is key to many communities’ ability to ride out the crisis. The country’s borders remain closed to most foreigners and vital revenue from foreign tourism—normally accounting for over 10% of GDP—has disappeared.

The pandemic and the ongoing protests have quickly created a moment where Thailand must decide how it will address the country’s stark wealth gap and how it will react to the needs of low-income rural communities. The government may continue on its push to turn Thailand into a high-income country by 2036, but without addressing the precarious state of land inequality, this growth will remain tenuous and unstable.

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