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Teeranet Chaisuwan (L), a land rights defender, and deputy permanent secretary of the prime minister's office Jirachai Moontongroy (2nd L) lay flowers in front a memorial for four murdered land rights defenders during a government meeting with villagers in Klong Sai Pattana, south of Thailand, July 1, 2016. Picture taken July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alisa Tang

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By Alisa Tang

KLONG SAI PATTANA, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Along a mud road deep inside oil palm and rubber plantations in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani, handwritten signs tag grim evidence of a struggle for land that began two decades ago, and then turned violent and deadly.

One sign points to the area illegally used by a palm oil company.

In a grove of banana trees, a sign for "bunker" indicates a low, palm-leaf camouflaged mud hut built six years ago for women and children to sleep in while men patrolled forests ringing with gunfire.

Further on is a ruined, one-room shack with bamboo floors and rusted roofing, marked as the home of Somporn Pattaphum, born 1957, died 2010. Somporn was the first of four people from Klong Sai Pattana who were killed by unidentified gunmen.

"He was sitting at this house next door when he was shot," said Khuan Panmuang, a fellow land rights defender from a nearby village. "They keep his home in case his children want to join them here."

These landmarks are just some of the evidence collected by villagers since Thailand's 1997 constitution granted the right to access official information - for the first time allowing people to demand documentation for murky land deals across the country.

With this constitutional right - and the subsequent Official Information Act of 1997 - land rights campaigners wielded a key weapon to investigate government property that had long been in the grip of investors, in the hope that it would be redistributed to farmers as part of Thai land reforms.

"As soon as we had the right to access this information, we were able look at the information on land owned by the government and see, was it legally held or not? Who was holding it?" said Suraphon Songruk, of the Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand (SPFT).

They uncovered expired and illegal concessions on land owned by the government's Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO), stockpiled reams of documents, and in the case of Klong Sai Pattana, helped the ALRO to win a court case to reclaim the land from the trespassing palm oil company.

Today, with Thai politics in turmoil after a decade of troubled elections, protests, two coups and now military rule, land rights campaigners fear the right to access information hangs in the balance.

Thailand is set to hold a referendum for a new constitution in August. Section 41 of the draft constitution retains the right to access information, and the government says the new charter will not affect the existing law.

"They still have this right, according to the law of (1997)," Jirachai Moontongroy, deputy permanent secretary of the prime minister's office, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, after a walking tour of the Klong Sai Pattana on July 1.

"It is clearly defined what information the people can ask for, and what information civil servants must provide."

EXPIRED CONCESSIONS

Klong Sai Pattana is one of six villages in the south where the SPFT is pushing for a community land title, which legally permits collective management and use of state-owned land for residents' livelihoods.

As land rights activists who have occupied the 160-hectare plot, many villagers are well-versed in their rights and the history of their struggle.

They say the movement to reclaim expired concessions and encroached areas from companies - as in Klong Sai Pattana - began in 2002 with the construction of a dam in Surat Thani.

Several villagers were going to be displaced by the dam, so the government looked for areas to relocate them. Provincial officials mentioned expired concessions on state-owned property as a possibility, residents of Klong Sai Pattana said.

However, when villagers asked for documents as evidence to reclaim these lands for redistribution, officials withheld the information.

"When we wanted to take the land from the investors, then the information was blocked again, so we protested," Teeranet Chaisuwan, a resident, said as he pored over copies of the documents collected by the community over the years.

In 2003, the government agreed to investigate the palm oil plantations. Villagers say they helped to compile the necessary legal evidence. In 2014, a court ruled that the ALRO could evict the palm oil company in Klong Sai Pattana.

RIGHTS IN THE BALANCE

The land rights campaigners in Klong Sai Pattana began moving into the area in 2008, occupying the land - with the government's consent - and pressuring the investors to leave.

Two years later, the first of the land rights activists – Somporn - was killed. Over the years, three more people were fatally shot, while another resident was shot and wounded in April. Residents blame the shootings on mafia linked to the plantations, but no one has been convicted or jailed.

    Insisting that they sacrificed their lives to help the government win the court case against the palm oil company, the residents believe they deserve this ALRO land to be redistributed to them.

However, the ALRO says these villagers are also illegal occupants and must leave because all Thais have an equal right to vie for the 160-hectare plot.

The ruling military junta last week issued an order allowing the ALRO to reclaim land that has been occupied illegally.

Meanwhile, even though Klong Sai Pattana residents say they helped to oust the palm oil company, they are accused of being the company's dependents - who must also be evicted. A court is set to rule on Friday on whether this is the case.

Suraphon, of the SPFT, says that even if the land is not given to those who live there and have fought for it, the fact that the Thai people will get the land is a victory.

"Future generations will benefit from the SPFT's efforts. At least the government has to take back land from the investors and give it to poor people. That is one step toward development - at least we changed the policy, even if we don't get the land," he said.

With Thailand currently under military rule, Suraphon's concern now is a clampdown on information.

"They can write in the fine print... they can hide different ways to make it hard for people to access information," he said.

"Some information is easily accessible, but for some you have to ask for permission from officials. Sometimes they say the boss is not in today, so you have to come back tomorrow - then we go home empty-handed, and waste another day."

(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, Editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin. 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)

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