In Thailand, a 'land grab'

Three months after his house was laid low by surging waves, Somchai Porsakul is in a hurry to rebuild. If he can reoccupy the modest plot of land here that he calls home, he might avoid being evicted by a rich Thai family that claims to be the rightful owner.

In February, the purported owner came and told the villagers to clear out or face the consequences. Instead, after he left, defiant villagers chased away his team of surveyors and went back to rebuilding.

"I know they say this land belongs to someone, but we've lived here a long time already," says Somchai, gesturing at his dirt yard. "Look at those coconut trees. We planted those. This is my land."

Up and down Khao Lak's tsunami-stricken coastline, hundreds of families are embroiled in similar rows over land ownership. Most lack legal title to their land, giving opportunistic tourism developers the upper hand in what critics are calling a land grab of lucrative beachfront.

Until the tsunami struck, Khao Lak's gently sloping beaches were among Thailand's hottest destinations. Thousands of hotel rooms mushroomed alongside rickety fishing villages and rubber plantations.

The tourist sparkle has died for now, but Thai developers are betting that it will be back, and that when it does the owners of prime beachfront will reap the rewards.

"When the tsunami came, it was a good chance to clear the land. They [the developers] have tried before to chase people away. The tsunami has done the job for them," says Sen. Chirmsak Pinthong, who visited the area last month to investigate land rights.

Under Thai law, squatters can apply for legal title to a plot of land after 10 years of continuous use. In practice, few succeed, and millions of Thais live on what is technically public land. Speculators exploit this ambiguity by bribing officials to backdate land purchases, then accuse villagers of encroaching. Battles over land title are common in Thailand, particularly when tourist dollars are at stake.

The district chief says he's aware of the disputes in Taptawan and other villages, and advises residents to stand their ground for now. "We need to take these matters to court. The villagers shouldn't listen to what the [purported owner] tells them," says Chalosak Wanitchalern.

In Baan Naam Khem, a fishing port that was almost wiped out by the tsunami, the battle lines are drawn more sharply. Fifty households on the western beachfront left destitute by the giant waves are locked in a bitter standoff with a developer linked to a prominent Thai politician.

The dispute has turned nasty. The developer reportedly sent armed men to stop former residents from returning to sift through the ashes of their homes and threatened those who resisted. Even before the tsunami, the developer had sought to evict the families, insisting that it had the law on its side.

Residents say it was a trick sprung by a village headman who was in cahoots with the developer. Three years ago, the headman collected the names and addresses of everyone in the community and said he was petitioning the government for land titles. Instead, he gave the list to the developer who then launched legal action against the residents.

The government has offered to resettle the villagers on public land, but the site is several miles inland and few are satisfied. Guson Pitlak, a mother of three whose flimsy wooden house was swept away on Dec. 26, is gloomy about their chances of reclaiming what was theirs. "If I want to rebuild my house, I'm sure [the company] will sue us again. They want to build a resort on the land, for all the foreign tourists that come here," she says, resting on the floor of her room in a temporary plywood shelter.

Other communities have managed to see off the developers. Baan Waa, a fishing village of 72 households, was told that their land was needed for a new hospital for Khao Lak that the German government had agreed to build. The villagers dug in their heels and appealed to a visiting group of senators, including Senator Chirmsak, for help. A call to the German Embassy revealed that the scheme was a fiction.

Now the village is being rebuilt with private and public money, and the residents are promised a communal land title to their new houses. "The government will give the legal right to everyone who lives here," says Tawatchai Tongboonchu, the building site director.

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