Fighting to Keep their Land

By DEVID RAJAH

PHUKET, Thailand – Artorn Sooksrigaew’s eyes often strayed away from those sitting in front of him. One could tell from the short, bristly facial hair that he had not shaved for days. Seated barely a metre away from his son’s coffin at a Buddhist temple in Ban Nam Khem, a village in Thailand’s Phang-nga province, the fisherman seemed adrift looking into the open area of the temple grounds.

This soft-spoken tsunami survivor from Laem Pom in Ban Nam Khem became the focus of the media when his son Piyawat Sooksrigaew, 18, committed suicide on May 20. This was five months after the family lost two of its members to the Indian Ocean disaster that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, injured or displaced.

At least 6,000 people were believed to have perished in Thailand, many of them foreign tourists.

Police said Piyawat hanged himself from a tree in a neighboring village, an act a Thai psychiatrist describes as a normal reaction of people under extreme stress and depression, much like the tsunami survivors who lost their loved ones.

This latest crisis in Artorn’s life took place amidst a land dispute between 50 families from
Laem Pom, including Artorn’s, and a land development company. After losing members of his family, he is in danger of losing his land.

“The land dispute is not on my mind now. I want to deal with my son’s death first. I cannot believe that Piyawat committed suicide,” Artorn told this writer.

“Piyawat told me that I had not been spending time with him and that he missed his mother and sister,” recalled Artorn of the conversation he had with Piyawat 10 days before the suicide. The despondent father admitted that he hardly spent time with his son because he was busy helping to fend off efforts by groups to grab the land where he and his family had lived and where he hoped to rebuild what was left of his life.

The land dispute involves 418 rai (one rai is 0.4 acre or 0.16 hectare) between the villagers of Laem Pom and Far East Trading and Construction Co – a company run by Thai businessmen.
It started in 2002 but escalated when the tsunami reduced the village to a heap of rubble. In the ensuing chaos and in the midst of the frenzied efforts to rehabilitate affected areas, workers hired by Far East Trading took advantage of the situation and fenced up the disputed plot, preventing villagers from entering.

Villagers here claimed they heard gunshots every night after some 30 of them returned to the beachfront area to reconstruct houses that the waves had destroyed.

Similar land disputes have surfaced in other parts of the 293-kilometer-long Phang-nga coastline after the tsunami. Phang-nga was the hardest hit of the six provinces in southwestern Thailand overwhelmed by giant waves. The others were Phuket, Krabi, Ranong, Satun and Trang.

In Phang-nga alone, 4,224 people died, and 19,509 people (or 4,394 families) were affected while 1,409 houses were totally destroyed, according to the Office of the Governor.

The Office of the Attorney-General, meanwhile, said land problems between villagers and speculators had increased after the December 2004 disaster and now involved 5,000 rais in Phang-nga alone.

The Thai National Land Committee’s sub-committee looking into tsunami affected communities found 418 communities embroiled in land disputes following the tsunami.

Former deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyuth said the committee managed to resolve six of the 20 most serious cases, through closed-door negotiations with people at community, district, provincial and national level. But Artorn’s village is not one of them.

According to a senior officer from the Government’s Community Organisation Development Institute (CODI), one of the success stories of the subcommittee’s involvement was in Ban Tung Wah, also in Phang nga Province.

Ban Tung Wah in Takua Paa district, one of several settlements occupied by the Mokans, was flattened by the tsunami, leaving its inhabitants — the indigenous sea gypsies — homeless.  The Mokans were living on 26 rai of coastal land in the area for decades but had no legal hold on the land as they had no title deeds or other documents.

After the tsunami, they were told by a local official that they could not longer occupy the land because a public hospital was to be set up in the area. They had in fact been squatting on public land all these years, they were told.

Weeks later, the Mokan community decided to “invade” their own land and began building houses on the old site. With the intense media attention on their plight and those of other fishing communities along the Andaman coast, local authorities took on a different tack.
Instead of eviction, they designed a land-sharing agreement under which 16 rai of the disputed land was given to the community cooperative on a long-term collective land lease, and the remaining 10 rai returned to the local authority to enable it to build a hospital.

The officer, who declined to be named, said the Mokan people, with the help of volunteer architects, designed and built the houses using their own labor and at extremely modest cost  — 100,000 baht (about 2,500 U.S. dollars) per house. The fisherfolk built their houses on stilts, using bamboo and rough planks as walls, with full veranda and airy rooms and lots of open space underneath for raising chickens and pigs and slinging hammocks during the hot part of the afternoon.

“Though the Mokan people preferred to own the entire plot, most of them are happy with the land-sharing deal,” said the officer. He said this was Thailand’s first post-tsunami, shoreline land-sharing scheme that yielded positive results.

It was not the case with Artorn Sooksrigaew’s village, however. The villagers of Laem Pom are in a legal tussle with Far East Trading over 418 rai of land which they have called their home. Artorn owns less than a rai (0.16ha) on the disputed area, but he will have to face the problem while dealing with the twin tragedies that hit his family and the daily struggle of surviving.

Chuwang Panchai, 82, a Laem Pom villager who has filed a class suit against the Far East Trading for claiming ownership to his 30 rai plot, said one rai of beachfront land was now worth 12 million baht (300,000 U.S. dollars). “Thirty years ago nobody was interested in it,” he said. One of the pioneer settlers there, Chuwang, who has another house outside the village, said Far East Trading planned to build a beachfront resort.

Laem Pom is part of Ban Nam Khem, a seaside settlement of former laborers from all over the country who moved to the area to work in the tin mines. When the mining concession ended they established their own community, which villagers have called home for decades.

In the first half of the 20th century, a lot of these land plots were given on concession to private tin mining companies through a certificate of land utilisation or Nor Sor 3 Gor, though in some of these areas, fishing communities had been there for centuries. When the mines were abandoned and the mining concessions expired, many of the contracts were passed on or sold to new entrepreneurs and speculators. The disputed land should have  reverted to public control but now many landlords have suddenly appeared after the tsunami with permanent titles or Nor Sor 4 Jor aka Chanote Title.

According to non-governmental organisation representatives and lawyers it would be an arduous task to check when the Land Office issued permanent titles to these landowners. “We suspect the issuance of permanent titles could have been backdated although the landlords could have just obtained them,” said Bangkok-based activist Suriayasai Katasila from the
Campaign for Popular Democracy (Thailand).

In Ban Nam Khem, another 19 families are also battling to keep their 50-rai land that is being claimed by an individual landlord. A local lawyer Veschasa Vannapongsak said the cases had been taken to court. A seven-rai plot belonging to one Ramai Rodson, 32, is being keenly contested as the area is next to a proposed fisheries jetty project. Her plot could easily fetch a 100 million baht (2.5 million dollars), he said.

At the Mokan people’s village in Ban Tap Tawan, about 10 minutes drive from south of Ban Nam Kem, a landlord appeared after the tsunami and staked claim to a 24 rai plot, where non-governmental organisation workers had built homes for the villagers.

“But the villagers here are not going to give up their land rights that easily as they have been here for hundreds of years,” said Suttipoan Kongthong, an official from the Slum Network of Thailand. Suttipoan claimed that in most of the land dispute cases, the rich and powerful businessmen often collude with the local land officials, village heads and politicians to obtain the permanent land title deeds.

“Once the new landowner sent workers to survey his so-called plot but the villagers chased them away,” said Suttipoan, who has initiated negotiations with the landlord and government officials to allow the Moken people to continue staying there. The Slum Network would continue to work with the people to resolve problems so that villagers there would not be short-changed.

A Tap Tawan villager, Porssak Mahjun, 29, said most of the Moken people, totalling about 127 families, had never applied for title deeds despite having lived there for centuries. Most of them are fishermen and not educated. “Our major worry now is not the housing land but the berthing area for fishing boats that has been blocked by another landlord who appeared as recent as early May. He has put up signboards on tree trunks claiming the land is his. We don’t know if he is really the landowner. It has to be investigated,” he said.

Porssak also works with the local volunteers rebuilding boats and coordinates with NGOs involved in the reconstruction of tsunami-hit villages. Some of the NGOs that are actively helping the homeless and affected people include Slum Network, Save Andaman Network and CODI acting as the coordinator, along with about 10 other NGOs.

The land dispute also saw an NGO worker being assaulted in Baan Nai Rai, a Muslim village in Thai Muang district, Phang-nga – located just 60 km from the border with Phuket. Adinan Jiloa, 35, was punched for taking pictures of a group of people who came to evict the villagers involved in a land dispute. The workers grabbed Adinan by the collar of his shirt and punched him in the chest. “They even asked me if wanted to taste death and told me not to be seen anywhere outside the village area,” said Adinan, who is helping Save Andaman Network.

“The villagers came to my rescue and took me away when I was punched. For a week I stayed away from the village …,” said Adinan, who noticed the assailant had firearms on him and was also accompanied by local leaders and police personnel.

According to Adinan, the businessmen-cum-politician had already purchased or taken control of 700 rai and still wants the remaining 100 rai from the 35 Muslim families that he is working with.

Visits to several of the tsunami-hit areas revealed land speculators are waiting to grab any beachfront land that they can lay their hands on. Locals in some of these areas are also willing to become middlemen to coax villagers to sell land to prospective buyers. In Kao   Lak, a restaurant owner was willing to match sellers with buyers. Land for sale notices were also found in many places along Phang-nga.

Locals claimed that some plots that bore the notices were not part of the disputed areas, but were land owned by individual villagers who have been traumatised by the tsunami and are now open to selling their land.

While the poor tsunami survivors struggle to rebuild their lives or fight to keep the land plots there are those who want to make money at the expense of traumatised people. A common disadvantage that is working against the villagers involved in land disputes is having no permanent title deeds. Those who claim to have title deeds only possess Nor Sor 3 Gor or land utilisation deeds.

According the Thai Law Society vice chairman Surapong Kongchantuk villagers who stayed on public land for 10 years or more could apply for title deeds through the land office. “But in most cases this will take a long time and there is also a lot of corruption at local level.”

He said there were three categories of land disputes: one concerns public land encroachment, the second involves land developed or opened by the community, and the third is the illegal sale of beachfront land to speculators by land office officials. He said the problem could not be solved so easily, as disputes would end up in the courts.

The Phang-nga Governor’s Office just gave a one-line answer to this writer’s queries on the land dispute problem. The public relations officer Sophon Sirikulpiput said there should be a more permanent solution to the land dispute and avoided the rest of the questions concerning the plight of the affected people.

Save Andaman Network official Ampom Kaewnoo said it would be easier to negotiate for houses and lots if the villagers had been living on government or public land. “If the disputed land belongs to individuals or companies it would be very difficult to resolve because disputes would eventually end up in court, and if this happens the future of the tsunami hit villagers would remain uncertain. We at the network hope to buy plots from the private landowners so that villagers can start rebuilding their shattered lives instead of fighting.”

A government official, who declined to be named, said it would be better for landowners — be they individual speculators or companies — to resolve disputes through negotiations rather than through the courts. “If the private companies had obtained the plots by illegal means the court trial will open up a can of worms. And if this happens the land officials, politicians and all those who had circumvented rules and regulations could be hauled up,” said the official.

Regardless of who the real owners are, it will be an uphill battle for the villagers like Artorn, who are still trying to deal with the trauma of losing loved ones to the tsunami. With hardly any resources to sustain a legal fight, they will have to rely on one another and support from civil society to keep their hopes alive and to keep their sanity, if not their land.

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