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Isaan villagers have won a landmark lawsuit which the Thai authorities filed against them for opposing the construction of one of the junta’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ).

On 26 January 2017, the Provincial Court of Nakhon Phanom dismissed the lawsuit filed against 29 villagers from Khok Phu Kratae and Phai Lom villages in At Samat Subdistrict of Mueang District in the province.

The villagers were indicted for encroaching on public land which the authorities had reclaimed for the construction of the Nakhon Phanom SEZ.  

The court, however, dismissed the lawsuit reasoning that the villagers possess documents for land plots which they have occupied for a long time.

The judges added that the villagers were able to settle on the land because public officials responsible for land appropriation in the area did not do their jobs properly in the first place.

Somphop Chotiwong, defence lawyer for the villagers, said that this means that the villagers do not have to be evicted.

Simmara Hongsamanud (centre), who had been battling the eviction order from the authorities, shows the Land Utilisation Certificate (NS3) her family possesses. She claims that her family has been living in the area for at least three generations (file photo)

The lawyer elaborated that the court cited a letter issued in 1996 by Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, then Deputy Prime Minister, ordering public officials to resolve land disputes in the area, as evidence that the villagers have settled on the land for a long time.

In May 2015, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister, invoked his authority under Section 44 of the Interim Charter, which gives the junta absolute power in maintaining national security, to announce NCPO Order No. 17/2015.

The order mandates turning large areas in Tak, Mukdahan, Nong Khai, Sa Kaeo and Trat provinces, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, into SEZs, where deregulation of industry and tax cuts are offered to lure investors.

In addition to the pilot SEZ projects in these five provinces, more land in five other provinces, Chiang Rai, Nakhon Phanom, Kanchanaburi, Songkhla, and Narathiwat, are to be expropriated and cleared for SEZs.

Prayut said that the SEZ project, which in its initial stage would require about 10.2 billion baht investment, would promote regional economic integration and development on a ‘sustainable basis’, adding that investment and trade in 13 major border regions in Thailand currently adds up to 80 billion baht.

For local communities, however, especially those which are to be evicted from the areas which will be turned into SEZs, the economic benefits promised by the government might not make up for their losses if they are rendered homeless by the plan.

The gate of the planned Special Economic Zone of Nakhon Phanom next to the custom center at the base of the Third Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge (file photo)

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