Report by: Phatchara Kamchamnarn
Photo by: Natjanan Ketsuwan, Ranida Boriboonpatarakul
Translated by Pantharee Sujitvarong
Railroad lying along the lowland area, both sides of the track are narrow but full of verdancy. From this view, people may think people in Yothaka would live happily. But actually, the locals are forced to move out of the land they have lived since their grandparents, and thus, fighting to stay for 4 years now.
Life in Yothaka: from the beginning to the day to move
According to the information gathered by locals of Village 11, the Yothaka community has held its history for over 80 years. As a sub-district in Bang Nam Priao district, Chachoengsao province, and an area of more than 36,000 Rai, Yothaka has 1,654 households and 6,362 residents. Ninety percent of the population make their living from agriculture.
Som-mai Bunnimi, headman of Village 11 said, as the story goes, during the reign of King Rama V, a royal consort owned the land, which is now his home. Her family then sold the plot, and it ended up in the hands of the Thai Navy in 1948. As a result, several Rais of land in Yothaka become the state’s estate, while the residents became tenants. Having no title deeds, the locals have to pay an annual rental fee, which is relatively small.
In 2014, those living in the area owned by the navy received a notice from the landlord informing the eviction, without much clear information regarding compensation or what would be of the land when they move out.
“First, when there wasn’t any project in the area, we hoped to settle down here. But when they [Royal Thai navy] want the land back, we are in trouble. We got so many eviction notices. They don’t seem to care. We, the local people, can still do farming, but some are worried because they never mentioned about the consequences and compensations,” said Headman Som-mai.
Lamai Sabphachai, a 60-year-old resident of Village 11, said that when she first lived in the area, she didn’t have to pay rent for the land. Later, when authority informed the locals that they had to pay rent, she was willing to do so in exchange for residence and farming area. She added that the Chachoengsao treasury department even told villagers that they should keep on paying rent, and that the lands were theirs to keep. Therefore, the villagers felt secured, and divided the plot among their children, so the next generation could continue living and farming there.
Headman Som-mai showed the letter from the treasury department of Chachoengsao, dated February 9, 2016, indicating that the locals get their rental guarantee back, for the treasury department had stopped renting out the area of Village 11 because the government would need the land for its own use. The letter also stated the locals had to move out within 15 days.
Until now, even though the locals can still live and farm in the area, there has been no signs from the responsible sectors to resolve this issue. What local people are concerned is unpredictable future, since there still no clear statements regarding the compensatory process or rental closure.
No progress on the petition
Headman Som-mai told that he, together with some locals, tried to resolve the dispute by filing petitions to local leaders and relevant agencies in Chachoengsao and Bangkok, including the Damrongdhama Center, the Treasury Department, and the Office of the Prime Minister. Some agencies said that their petition was in progress, and some were simply non-responsive. The Office of Ombudsman even told them not to pursue their petition further since the land repatriation is for the state’s interest.
The letter from Royal Thai navy to residents of Village 11, dated January 22, 2018, stated that the rental period will be discontinued soon, and the locals have to move out and take down any structures with a turnover letter to Royal Thai navy. If the locals don’t abide by the statement, they will be prosecuted. To Headman Som-mai, this letter showed that the navy does not want the locals to file any more petitions, hence forcing the locals to have no other choices except moving out.
‘To negotiate’ is the locals’ last hope
Residents of Village 11 of Yothaka believed that the way responsible agencies dealt with them by only communicating through letters doesn’t work. The headman of Village 11 said villagers only want to have an open discussion about the issue so they may find better solutions to this dispute. The problem is they don’t know whom to negotiate with, who the project owner is, and what the project actually is.
“I heard that the budget for the project [for which the land will be used] is approximately 150 million baht to do some sort of submarine radar. The local tried to negotiate, asking if some areas can be left for farming, they can even pay rent for it. But the request remains ignored, ” said Headman Som-mai.
A resident of Village 11, 50-year-old Wanpen Bunnimi, said that the locals have not been able to expand farming activities or renovating their houses since 2014 due to the Royal Thai Navy’s restrictions. Soldiers often patrol the area as well.
“We cannot do anything to the land, even plant a tree. They will come and check every week or two, then take photos.
“We have always lived here like a big family, also made a living here. It’s unimaginable to move to somewhere else, having no idea how else to earn a living. We also have debts, so a new house or plot of land is unaffordable. So we want to continue paying rent under an annual contract in order to prevent unforeseen problems,” Wanpen added.
EEC and Yothaka’s future
The Prachachart news report on March 4, 2018 quoted director-general of the Treasury Department Patchara Anantasilp saying that, the department have already allocated the area around 4,000 Rai of the Navy Agriculture Center in Yothaka to the EEC project, hoping to develop the area as a high-quality living area. However, local civil society sector disagreed with such a plan.
“Yothaka may not be appropriate for industrial area because it is a lowland that often gets flooded since it’s where the Nakhon Nayok and Prachin rivers meet. Agriculture suits this area the most,”
Kann Tattiyakul, coordinator of EEC Watch talked about the disputed area. He pointed out that the land repatriation may be part of the military government’s plan to lease the land out to private sectors.
Meanwhile, Pornpana Kuaycharoen from Land Watch Thai, which is an organization supporting the rights of victims of land and forest repatriation, said that access to and distribution of information is very important to villagers because it can help the locals defend their rights.
“If we don’t have information that the locals have been here for three generations, other people may misunderstand that the locals make a living on other people’s land. But the information [that they have been here for generations] makes it lawful for the locals,” Pornpana explained.
Nonetheless, it is difficult for the locals to gather the information themselves because they cannot access to some information from government sectors. Therefore, Land Watch Thai has stepped in to help villagers look for important information and compile documents for the locals to send their claims and petitions to involved agencies. “We only get involved in the information gathering and reporting process, but the locals take action themselves,” Pornpana said.
Pornpana also added that the next step for the Yothaka people is to file their petition to the Nation Land Policy Committee following the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand’s advice, since the treasury department of Chachoengsao cannot process any further when the navy remains the landlord.