A sign that reads "bunker D constructed 2010-2011" stands in front of a low, palm-leaf camouflaged mud hut in which women and children slept while men patrolled forests ringing with gunfire at Klong Sai Pattana in Surat Thani, south of Thailand, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alisa Tang(reuters_tickers)
By Alisa Tang
KLONG SAI PATTANA, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Klong Sai Pattana, a rural community carved out of an illegal oil palm plantation by land rights campaigners, new arrivals are given a one-year trial run at being farmers.
If the newcomers pass the year-long test in organic farming and sustainable development, they are permitted to stay. If not, they move on and their plot in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand is passed on to the next applicant in line.
Klong Sai Pattana's leaders say the rules - honed over two decades of violent struggle for land and shaped by land rights movements from countries including Mexico and Brazil, to India and Indonesia - are essential to preserving harmony.
They argue a government push to evict them - and to redistribute to outsiders the state-owned land that they fought for - could result in a failed community.
"It's not as if we can live with 'random' people. What if bad elements come in? The people live here together through order and discipline," Prateep Rakangthong, a 61-year-old leader of Klong Sai Pattana, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Villagers who can't accept and live with this order can't live with us," Rakangthong said.
"The community would collapse - then the land would fall into the hands of people who have buying power, the investors," he said, after meeting government officials in early July.
Newly-arrived families receive 1,600 square metres (17,222 square feet)to live on, 1.6 hectares (3.9 acres) of land to farm and earn a living, as well as access to a community farm and forest for cooking ingredients and pasture for cows who produce organic fertiliser.
If investors wrest back control of the land, the sacrifice of campaigners who fought to reclaim it - four have been killed by unidentified gunmen since 2010 - will have been in vain, he said.
Klong Sai Pattana is a 160-hectare plot owned by the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO).
In 2008, campaigners formed the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT) coalition, and occupied the land, with the consent of ALRO.
They then helped ALRO to collect evidence to win a court case to evict the trespassing palm oil company.
Having helped to oust the palm oil company, members of the SPFT say they deserve to stay in the community - under a title allowing collective management and use of state-owned land.
However, the government says all Thais should have an opportunity to vie for it.
"This area belongs to the Agricultural Land Reform Office. There are clear steps and procedures that must be followed to redistribute and share this land to those who have the right to live here," Jirachai Moontongroy, deputy permanent secretary of the prime minister's office, said during a recent visit.
"Even though some people have been living in the area for many years, they are only one group of people who have the right ... it's up to the civil servants redistributing the land in the province to decide," Moontongroy said.
EXCLUDED FROM LAND REDISTRIBUTION?
The government has used various tactics to push the land activists out of Klong Sai Pattana.
Despite having helped to oust the palm oil company, campaigners were accused of being dependents of the company who should also be evicted.
On July 15 a court ruled in their favour, saying they were not the company's dependents.
Now the Klong Sai Pattana activists face a new challenge: the ruling military junta issued an order this month allowing the ALRO to reclaim land that was occupied illegally.
Pranom Somwong, a lawyer with rights group Protection International, said after the verdict on 15 July that the provincial ALRO office "will continue in their efforts to evict the Klong Sai Pattana community from their lands".
Campaigners fear that if they are evicted and the land is redistributed, they will be excluded - as happened to others who fought for a nearby plot but were left out when that land was redistributed a decade ago.
"These other people don't have to do anything. They just come in, serve themselves and feast," said Khuan Panmuang, a SPFT member living in the nearby community of Santi Pattana.
According to SPFT members, 80 percent of the people who moved into that community have since sold their land.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, Editing by Jo Griffin and Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)