June 4, 2005
Land unoccupied before tourism influx, but now stands as slap in face for authorities, sailors
An on-going land dispute involving an eight-rai plot at Yuthanavee cape or Hua Mong cape, south of Koh Chang, is not only a slap in the face for authorities but also an insult to the memories of Thai sailors who died protecting the motherland from French intruders 64 years ago.
The plot in question, designated as the site for a monument to honour the war dead, was unoccupied when it was earmarked for the government’s ambitious plan to develop the island into a world-class tourist destination, said an official from the Designated Area for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta).
Dasta is drafting a tourism development blueprint and integrating work between various agencies to reclaim forest land and public beaches from encroachers.
“When the land was surveyed in 2002, it couldn’t be mistaken for anything but forest. There wasn’t a single sign of land development,” the Dasta official said.
Three months ago, however, the area became lively. Trees were being felled and the ground cleared.
“We went in to inspect the land and were shown a land title deed. We all were stunned,” the official said.
The land paper also took Prataya Thangchan, head of the suppression unit of the Mu Koh Chang national park, off guard. “The plot is located on top of a mountain with a steep slope, about 90 degrees. How was a deed title issued for the plot?” he said.
The plot of land, covering 15,412 sq m, was demarcated from the park area in 1982 and was left under the supervision of the Royal Thai Navy which oversees the monument project to honour the men who fought against French intruders.
Sixty Thai sailors were killed in combat on Jan 17, 1941, when three Thai warships engaged a fleet of seven French vessels led by the cruiser Lamotte-Picquet.
The naval engagement site has since been held sacred by villagers and naval officers. A small shrine in honour of the war heroes is located at the cape and a wreath-laying ceremony is held on Jan 17 every year.
It is believed the eight-rai plot, which offers a panoramic view of Koh Chang’s satellite islands, did not attract any attention until the government’s ambitious project came along.
Chok-amnuay Surayothee, a business operator on Koh Chang and former owner of the plot, said he decided to purchase the land when the government launched the Koh Chang development project during 2001-2002.
“The plot wasn’t part of the national park. It also came with a Sor Khor 1 occupation document,” he said.
The document was upgraded into a land title deed last September after a series of land inspections and examinations.
An announcement saying the title deed had been issued for the plot was posted for 30 days to allow objections to be lodged.
Title deed No. 881 was issued for the land as there were no objections.
However, Mr Chok-amnuay decided to sell the plot to his creditor, because he felt the land brought him trouble. He was charged with forest encroachment but the prosecution dropped the case.
Mr Pratya, however, insisted national park officials did not take part in the land inspection and examination process.
“We were stood up. The landowner and land officials never showed up. And no one has contacted us since,” he said.
The officer admitted the national park failed to follow up the case and cooperate with state agencies. As the new owner, whose identity remains a secret, continues clearing the land, villagers feel something is still not right.
Sombat Salakphet, a 62-year-old resident of Koh Chang, said the land is so fertile that it should be protected by forest law, even though it is not part of the national park.
“Moreover, we find it unacceptable for anyone to build a house above the shrine. Each year we hold a ceremony to pay tribute to the heroes.
“We’ll put on our best fight against any attempts to own the land above the shrine,” Mr Sombat said.
The dispute is being probed by the Land Department following intervention by the Department of Special Investigation.
Some say the Ban Chek Bae-Ban Ao Luek road construction project is a root cause of widespread forest encroachment and illegal acquisition of land.
The 5km road, which ends at Yuthanavee cape, was supposed to be a bicycle track 5.5 metres in width. But the track was doubled in width by provincial authorities to accommodate tourists who want to explore the southern part of the island, especially the naval engagement site which used to be accessible by boat only.
The road has led to large-scale felling of trees to build connecting routes. Several business operators have submitted petitions seeking to improve access routes linking the Chek Bae-Ao Luek route.
“Those who initiated this road project didn’t think beyond tourism. But all I can say is that when the road comes, gone are the forests,” said Mr Pratya.
A local leader in the Chek Bae community said he welcomed the road when it was introduced, as it made life easier for the villagers. Now he regrets the road is being exploited by business operators.
“We thought the authorities could keep watch over the forest. But that’s not the case here. With tourism booming, land prices have jumped to two million baht per rai from 400,000-500,000 baht.
“And forest encroachment is taking place at an unprecedented scale,” he said.
Complaints had been lodged with the prime minister, but the villagers had not heard a word back. Some villagers had also faced intimidation and threats when campaigning against encroachment and illegal land acquisitions.
A Thai TV station did an investigation. The land in question did have a title deed but when checked, the deed indicated the land was in the north of the island and so there was obviously a ‘mistake’ somewhere. The road from Chek Bae-Ao Luek was never completed. Half is paved but unmaintained and so is cracking and in state of disrepair and the final 3km to the Naval Memorial is a rough dirt track. not only was the land near the memorial cleared, half the hillside was dug away, as was also the case at what is now the parking area for the nearby Treehouse bungalows – which used to be all hillside.