Established yet untitled, Alain Kilajian
The beautiful village of Huay Ra Hong, Phetchabun.
Before heading into UNIT 2, “The Land Rights” unit, we rigorously studied many of the implications surrounding land issues in Thailand. We read about multiple communities being evicted from their homes all over the nation because they did not own their land. Many villagers argued that they had been on their land for centuries, that their parents worked on their lands, that the parents of their parents worked on their land, but that is all pretty much irrelevant in front of the eyes of the law. Indeed, there are only two possible outcomes concerning land: either you have a land title or you don’t. And most villagers don’t. This means that the land they live on is actually government or “state” property, legally giving the latter full rights to do what they please with the land.
Consequently, on our way to the Huay Ra Hong village, in Phetchabun province, I envisioned a community torn by the constant fear of being evicted, continuously fighting to receive a land title. I also imagined a poor village with inadequately built houses, bad roads, without public institutions. Basically, I expected an underdeveloped community. However, to my great surprise, Huay Ra Hong was a well-established village. The first buildings to stand out as we entered the village were a school and a pharmacy. Cement paved roads brought us from one location to the other as we drove through the village. All I could think about was how a village with no land title could be so well established; furthermore, how could such a well established village with such solid infrastructures and institutions simply be evicted from their land.
As I arrived to the home of my host family, I was eager to begin hitting on these larger issues. However, first thing was first, it was time for dinner. Later that night, I asked my host dad a few questions about issues surrounding land titles and eviction. He answered as cool and as calm as can be, “We have no land title. And I am not afraid of being evicted.” At that point, nothing made sense. Once again, questions took over my mind: why don’t these villagers have land titles? Why aren’t they afraid of eviction if they cannot prove their land ownership? Where does the government stand around these issues? Many of these questions were actually answered the most adequately by my host dad and his role in the village.
My host dad, “Paw Deum”, is actually the TAO of Huay Ra Hong. The TAO is the most local governmental position: a member of a village who acts as a middle man between the community and the higher levels of government. In Huay Ra Hong, my host dad’s role consisted of distributing water to the rest of the villagers, dealing with finances concerning water and electricity use, and finally, managing money provided by the government to build new infrastructures such as roads and schools for the community. It seemed very strange to me that the government did not “legally” recognize this village, yet, offered funds for it to maintain and develop infrastructures. Furthermore, this untitled village also had a structured socio-political organization where certain villagers were actually government officials. A new questions arises, is the government supporting this village? Or is the government trying to get rid of this village? By refusing to give them land rights, the government is doing the latter but by providing them with funds for development, it is doing the former. The intention of the government and its relationship with the village are both unclear. This is a pattern that we have been seeing and discussing throughout our stay in Thailand. One thing is for sure: it is often quite difficult to read the true objectives of the Thai government in its policies and plans.