Local farmers suffer as Thai junta pleases big companies

Local people are to be evicted in the name of development, as the Thai junta invokes its absolute power to clear land for the benefit of big businesses.

The rain drops began pounding old tin roofs, making a drumming sound that many villagers have been waiting for. At last, after months of drought, the monsoon rains finally arrive and it is time to begin planting. However, Pen Wongkat, a 72-year-old farmer, will not buy seeds this year. “I don’t know if I will be able to harvest them or not after I sow the seeds,” Pen said while staring into the rain aimlessly. The fate of at least 97 families in Wang Takhian Village of Mae Sot District in the northern province of Tak are now, like Pen’s future, as opaque as the mist of rain upon their village.

In an attempt to drive the state of Thai economy out of the doldrums, the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in May 2015 issued NCPO Order No. 17/2015, turning large areas along the country’s borders into Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where deregulation of industries and tax cuts are offered to lure investors. Located right on the crossroads between Thailand and Myanmar, nearly 100 families in the small agrarian village of Wang Takhian will be evicted to pave the way for the junta’s ambitious development plan.  

A farmer working in a field right next to the Thai-Myanmar Bridge across the Moei River in Tha Sai Luat Subdistrict of Mae Sot, which will directly connect the SEZ with Thailand’s neighbour  

Development turned nightmare

When Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister, in May 2015 invoked his absolute authority under Section 44 of the Interim Charter to declare the area an SEZ, villagers of Wang Takhian in Tha Sai Luat Subdistrict of Mae Sot were hoping that their lives would get better. However, after they realised the devil in the details, their hopes were quickly shattered.

“We were glad to hear that we would get better running water and roads, along with a bridge across the Moei River into Myanmar and that there will be more jobs for us and our children,” said Sunthon Sribunma, a leader of Khon Mae Sot Rakthin (KMSR), a local activist group of villagers who are affected by the SEZ plan. “We of course welcome all these changes, but no one wants to be evicted and have their farmland taken away.”

Under the current plan to transform nearly 2,200 rai of land of Tha Sai Luat into an SEZ, Sunthon will lose his house together with about 15 rai of farmland in Wang Takhian, where he has been living for decades.

Sunthon Sribunma, a leader of Khon Mae Sot Rakthin (KMSR), a local activist group formed to fight the eviction order

Not far from his house, Pen Wongkat has been living off 36 rai of land inherited from her parents with three other members of her family. She also faces an eviction order from the authorities in the name of the SEZ. Without the land where her family has been growing beans, corns, and cassava, Pen said that she does not know where to go to if she really has to move. “I have been living and working on this piece of land since I was born and don’t know how to live otherwise. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. It just gives me a headache,” said Pen.

Like most of the villagers of Wang Takhian, Sunthon and Pen possess PTB5 Certificates for most of the plots they occupy, which are given to those who have been paying local tax for the land they use, and have Land Utilisation Certificates (NS3) and Land Claim Certificates (SK1) for other plots. Therefore the authorities can in practice reclaim the land, despite the fact that most of the villagers settled in the area in 1927.

Pen Wongkat, a 72-year-old farmer who has been living off 36 rai of land in Wang Takhian since she was born

Intimidation by the authorities    

Shortly after the junta enacted an order in May 2015 to reclaim the land for the Treasury Department in preparation for the construction of the Special Economic Zone in Mae Sot, public officials together with police and soldiers both in plainclothes and uniform regularly visited Wang Takhian Village to mark the land plots and urge the villagers to move.

According to Sunthon, many armed soldiers regularly visited the village to talk to the villagers, especially members of KMSR, and the villagers felt intimidated by the authorities. He added that these visits from the authorities occurred often when Somchai Hatayatanti, former Governor of Tak, was still in office.

Jutharat Unruang, a 38-year-old single mother now fighting an eviction order, told Prachatai that armed soldiers usually accompanied officials from the Land and Treasury Departments when they came to mark the land plots where her house and a garage are located. “Although the authorities might think that it is normal, I could not help but feel intimidated by the sight of armed soldiers,” said Jutharat.

Jutharat Unruang, another embattled resident of Wang Takhian sitting in front of her house which she might soon lose, together with her garage

Like Sunthon, Jutharat will lose both her house and her garage located on about 10 rai of land under the SEZ plan. “At first, when I heard the news about the SEZ, I planned to open a grocery shop and thought that we would have more customers at the garage. But now with the death of my husband and the fact that we might be evicted soon, I’m lost,” Jutharat told Prachatai.

In the article about the SEZ in Tak Province published on the website of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southeast Asia, Pranee Muangsook, a local activist, reported that she was summoned by the military and threatened with the notorious Computer Crime Act for criticising the provincial governor’s handling of land conflicts over the SEZ in Mae Sot.

During the public forums on the SEZ, Sunthon told Prachatai that there were always security officers around and the villagers felt restricted about expressing their opinions. When the junta leader visited the area last year, the authorities blocked them from submitting a letter to him, citing the Public Assembly Act, and confiscated banners which the villagers were carrying.

An empty land plot in Wang Thakien village of Tha Sai Luat Subdistrict which has already been cleared in preparation for construction of the SEZ

For the authorities, however, it is normal for them to enact such measures as the villagers do not possess title deeds for the land they occupy and are considered to be encroaching on public land. This is the view of Somchai Hatayatanti, former Governor of Tak. “If the government goes easy on them, in the future the others will encroach on public land as well. These are public plots and they do not have ownership documents,” Somchai told Prachatai. He added that in the long run people in Mae Sot will benefit from the Special Economic Zone because it will create jobs and business opportunities in the area.

Putting up a struggle

Although the villagers have not as yet conceded to the eviction order, many of Thailand’s leading conglomerates have already expressed interest in the SEZ in Mae Sot as it is right on the Thai-Myanmar border and the list of industries that might be located in the area includes chemical, logistic and agricultural firms.

Chanta Kanomkiew, a 64-year-old farmer who has a small pig farm on four rai of land in Wang Takhian, told Prachatai that he and his neighbours are not only fighting eviction, but they do not want polluting industries to be located in the area. “We welcome the SEZ and infrastructure that will come along with it, but not heavy industries which could cause a lot of pollution in the area,” said Chanta.

Chanta, a 64-year-old farmer who is another key member of Khon Mae Sot Rakthin (KMSR), posing in front of his house with a banner reading ‘Wang Takhian people do not want industries’

Asked if he thinks that the SEZ could create jobs for local people as the authorities have promised, Chanta said “I like to believe so as well, but people here are already happy with the land they have been farming on for generations. Besides, most of us are not youngsters, but middle-aged people, since most of the young ones have already gone to work in the city and other provinces.” He added that one of main reasons for setting up the SEZ at the border is to exploit cheap migrant labourers from the neighbouring Myanmar as the cabinet has approved the labour law [Article 14 of the 2008 Migrant Workers Act] to ease regulations on migrant workers, allowing them to come to work on daily or seasonal basis in SEZ areas without having to formally registered. Therefore, it is less likely that the industries in the SEZ will employ local Thais.

According to Taweesak Maneewan, a coordinator with the Northern Development Foundation (NDF), a civil society group promoting land rights in northern Thailand, the looming eviction reflects a prolonged problem in Thailand since the enactment of the 1941 Forest Act. “The Forest Act when it was enacted designated large areas of land as public forest despite the fact that there were already communities and villagers on those lands,” said Taweesak.

With the absolute power of the junta under Section 44 [of the Interim Charter] and other orders, such as the controversial NCPO Order No. 64/2014 issued to increase the nation’s forest and NCPO Order No. 3/2016 which exempts the construction of buildings in Special Economic Zones from the regulatory framework of the Town and City Planning Act, it is much easier now for the authorities to go ahead with plans for SEZs which had been postponed for many years under civilian governments, Taweesak pointed out.

Taweesak Maneewan, a coordinator with the Northern Development Foundation (NDF), who has been assisting the villagers of Wang Takhian to fight the eviction order

“The state agencies who proposed the area to the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT) as suitable for an SEZ thought that there were only five families in Wang Takhian, which could be easily compensated if they were to be evicted, but this is far from the reality,” said the NDF coordinator.

Since May last year, as the leader of KMSR, Sunthon and other villagers have submitted petitions to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Department of Land and the Damrongtham Centre of the Interior Ministry in an attempt to halt the eviction. But so far there has not been any promise or decision from the authorities on solutions to the land disputes over the SEZ.

Sunthon said that there have been proposals to compensate the villagers at 7,000-12,000 baht per rai of land and provide a resettlement area for the villagers in another district of Tak. However, he said that most of the villagers do not want to move and that the current market price of a rai of land in Mae Sot is almost one million baht, so to most villagers the compensation package is a joke.      

Wiraj Keatnuam, head of the Tak Provincial Treasury Office, told Prachatai that so far the authorities are trying to compromise with the villagers and have formed a special committee to solve the land disputes over the SEZ, but no concrete solution has yet been reached. He still firmly maintains that the disputed land belongs to the public, adding that only 9-10 land plots in Wang Takhian village are privately owned. “The public land belongs to every citizen. The occupation of these land plots by the villagers is causing damage to the state,” said Wiraj.

Suwin, a farmer in Wang Tha Kien village who grows bananas, lemon, bamboo shoots, sugar cane, mangoes and corn on 23 rai of land, which might soon be lost    

The dark clouds began to form above a small farm house on a hilly slope. Suwin Changtham, a 54-year-old farmer, turned his head towards the rumbling noise of trucks transporting limestone mined from the mountains in Tha Sai Luat in preparation for the construction of the SEZ. “I have been a farmer since I was young. Perhaps it will bring about development in the area, but it’s not for us,” said Suwin, staring towards the looming dark clouds above.