Why We Must Fight for Land Rights in Thailand

On November 19, 2012 at 7:00 AM, two villagers from Khlong Sai Phatthana in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand were shot and killed less than 800 meters from their homes. They were on a motorcycle en route to their local open-air market to sell the vegetables they had farmed on their land that week. After shots were fired, the daughter of one of the women and a neighbor ran out to find two women shot dead. Later the villagers and police found shell cases from M16 and HK rifles. The women were small-scale farmers and had moved from other provinces in the South to farm a small plot of land in Khlong Sai Phatthana. They had no known enemies. So why were these women senselessly killed?

Because of land.

Fifty-year-old Montha Chukaeo and 54-year-old Pranee Boonrak were both members of Southern Farmers Alliance (SFA), an AJWS grantee organization that works to secure land and access to natural resources for landless farmers in southern Thailand. Khlong Sai Phatthana and the surrounding area had been part of violent land disputes since 2008 because a palm oil company encroached on land that the Thai government had allocated for small-scale farmers like Chukaeo and Boonrak. In 2010, another villager was murdered and houses in surrounding villages were burnt to the ground. Though the community took the palm oil company to court in 2010 for illegal land encroachment and won, the government still has not enforced the ruling. Since 2010, the company has continued to illegally farm the land and even go as far as to sell the land to private investors.

What’s so significant about this community of farmers living on government land? They are the pilot community for a local land title project. Community land titles, which essentially function as permits, allow communities to collectively manage and utilize the land. It provides security and stability in land tenure. To date, only two communities in the entire country have land titles.

These murders and other goings-on are part of an illustrative example of the larger natural resource rights struggle in Thailand. The villagers in Khlong Sai Phatthana—and in similar communities around the country—live in an increasingly volatile and dangerous environment in which corrupt government officials and the corporate elite rule through bribery and well-oiled networks of intimidation and corruption.

Speaking of the murders, Weena Namcharoensombut, AJWS’s country consultant in Thailand, commented, “We are sad but still strong. And we will keep the struggle strong.”

There are still no suspects in the killing of Chukaeo and Boonrak and the shooters remain at large. AJWS will continue to monitor the situation and is supporting SFA’s efforts to demand justice for this crime.

Anne Lieberman is an AJWS program associate for Asia.