Thailand’s military junta has gained significant credibility from the squeaky-clean image of Surayud Chulanont, its appointed prime minister. In recent days there have been concerted attempts to challenge that image in relation to Surayud’s land holdings in Nakhon Ratchasima. Today’s Nation reports:

Two political pressure groups yesterday called on Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to step down in the wake of allegations that he was illegally occupying land in a forest reserve in Nakhon Ratchasima. In an open letter submitted to Surayud’s aide, Confederation for Democracy chairman Weng Tojirakan and Foundation for Democracy Heroes chairman Sant Hatirat said Surayud violated the Forestry Act of 1941 and Reserved Forest Act of 1964 by having a house in a forest reserve. The letter said that even though Surayud claimed that he bought the 20-rai plot and had paid tax on the land since 1994, and that the acquisition was in line with a Cabinet resolution of June 1998, his action violated the intention of the law. The letter said the intention of the Cabinet resolution was to solve a land shortage and pave the way to give the poor some land for agriculture to earn a living, and banned purchases and occupation of such land by outsiders.

The two groups also called on agencies to inspect degraded and reserve forests across the country and take action against offenders. Weng said Surayud had already conceded that the land occupation might not be right, so he would do better to take responsibility before the controversy destroyed his integrity. “If he thinks that running the country needs high ethics and morality, then he must quit because what he did was unlawful,” he said.

The details of Surayud’s particular case remain somewhat unclear. Perhaps more details will emerge as a result of the investigations being conducted by various land management agencies. But what is clear is that Thailand’s land and forestry laws, and the way they are implemented, provides numerous opportunities for affluent and influential figures to obtain areas of forest reserve land for residences, farms, resorts, business ventures and land speculation. This has been a longstanding problem with important implications for farmers in these areas. One implication is that provision of more secure tenure to the many farmers resident in forest reserve areas (remember that land classified as forest reserve – not necessarily forest! – covers some 40 percent of Thailand) is often resisted on the grounds that it will encourage the accumulation of land in the hands of external investors.

Hopefully Surayud’s case, however it is resolved, may encourage some greater scrutiny of elite acquisitions of forest reserve land that should be allocated for agricultural livelihoods not for elite retreat.