EDITORIAL: BANGKOK POST- Land rights need to be addressed

At a glance, it looks like a happy ending for villagers whose plight was highlighted during a demonstration staged by the land rights advocacy group People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move). After the group demonstrated for four days, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government agreed to set up a national committee to tackle the issues, with several cases involving confrontations between the state and villagers charged with illegally occupying forest reserves.

The villagers, who came from all over Thailand, occupied a site near Government House from Sept 8 and called for the government’s attention to their long-standing plight which has mostly resulted from unfair laws and state policies. Recent cases have seen local villagers as well as land rights defenders being prosecuted or thrown into jail over land conflicts with the state, including the villagers of Ban Sapwai in Chaiyaphum.

In a show of his concern for the villagers, Gen Prayut on Sept 12 assigned his deputy Wissanu Krea-ngam to lead the committee to solve their problems.

The 35-member committee comprises permanent secretaries and high-ranking officials from 10 ministries, including the ministries of interior, agriculture, natural resources and the environment, P-move and its affiliates.

Prime Minister’s Office Minister Tewan Liptapallop, who took the role of negotiator, beamed as he posed for photos with villagers while they were prepared to leave the demonstration site by transport arranged by the government.

Prayong Doklamyai, a core P-Move leader, expressed optimism, saying that solutions are not beyond reach given that most of the villagers’ demands, which include policy and reform matters, are among parties’ policies that they committed to during poll campaigns.

The activist is right. Now that parliament is sitting, MPs may help intervene when it comes to unfair laws that need amending. Moreover, Mr Prayong, who represents the Northern Development Foundation, believes the Wissanu panel, unlike previous ones, will wield decisive power in helping the villagers.

The people’s sector, he said, would monitor the solution-seeking processes and if necessary would come back to check on progress, he said.

Mr Tewan, at the same time, insisted Gen Prayut and the government are “sincere and want all the problems solved”. The minister believes the Wissanu committee, comprising all state agencies involved in the issues, is capable of ending the predicament.

For many, this is a victory for the land rights movement, with the government responding positively to their demands. Mr Wissanu is a senior cabinet figure. But despite what is deemed to be progress, all must be aware that this is just a beginning. Those who have followed this conflict should know by now that the state often sets up such panels, which when the conflicts fade from public interest, become idle and useless.

While Mr Tewan insisted the government is sincere in its bid to end the villagers’ plight, concerns have arisen as to whether the decision to set up the Wissanu panel is just another time-buying tactic aimed at easing political pressure, rather than seeking a real solution.

It’s known that the Prayut government has been under heat, with several controversies including the incomplete oath-taking gaffe and a scandal related to Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompow’s shady past among others cropping up. Under such circumstances, the government has no choice but to seek a compromise where possible.

Such doubts are valid since most, if not all, of the issues are not new. Some of them are long-standing conflicts which P-Move raised before the Gen Prayut regime and the country went to the polls.

Had Gen Prayut who had authoritative power back then been really sincere, he would have intervened or pushed for solutions long before, rather than waiting for another call from the land rights advocacy group before acting.

Don’t forget that some of the forest laws that oppress villagers’ ancestral rights were enacted during his previous tenure.

The war over the natural resources, land and forest, has intensified while the disparity has widened. The prime minister should look into the root cause and tackle the issues seriously. Painkillers or lip service will never solve the villagers’ plight.




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