It took just a few weeks for the Prayut Chan-o-cha government to cancel its controversial policy to allow foreigners to own up to one rai of land if they invest 40 million baht for three years. Well, the Cabinet on Tuesday decided they would not swim against the tsunami of criticisms and the allegation that they are literally “selling off Thai land” – particular close to general election time.
Whether that is fair for foreigners working hard or investing a lot in Thailand or not is debatable but what is clear is that the notion of nationalism in Thailand is closely tied to land and land ownership.
A journalist from the Mandarin Branch of Radio Free Asia asked me earlier this week why Thais are against Chinese purchasing one rai of Thai land.
“Chinese is seemingly the main target for blame, why so many people criticize Chinese recently,” Zewei Yang asks me.
Well, to be fair, ordinary Thais are just wary of foreigners, and not just Chinese from mainland China, owning Thai land.
But let’s answer Yang’s question first. That is partly because we see what is happening in neighboring countries like Cambodia and how China has literally turned Cambodia into a satellite state, a client state, or a semi-economic colony of China.
Some Chinese’s penchant for grey businesses in Thailand only make the matter worse. Think about the recent drug bust at a car-washing center illegally turned into a karaoke bar in the heart of Bangkok that is filled with young Chinese partygoers and supposedly operated by Chinese, and one should get the picture.
One valid issue that needs to be pointed out is resultant land price hikes in major urban areas if foreigners are allowed to own land. Think about the posh parts of London and their absentee foreign land and property owners, for example. Some Thais rightly fear they would be driven out of the property market if foreigners who earned much more are able to compete to buy Thai land.
But no, no, Thais inculcated with the Thai version of nationalism think of Thai land as something sacred and needs to be defended from foreign colonialists, imperialists, and now capitalists.
School children are inculcated at a young age on how ugly farangs, France and Britain, have shamelessly looted ‘our land’ that is now parts of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Never mind if we have looted from our neighbors first! These historical insults during the colonial era over a century ago enabled Thailand (then known as Siam) to narrowly escape direct western colonization is at the heart of Thai official history lessons taught at schools.
We feel ashamed that nothing can now be done about it so the specter of Prayut “the good former junta leader” wanting to “sell off” more Thai land – one rai at a time is just a betrayal to the very fundamental tenet of Thai nationalism. In fact, the Thai term for betraying one’s country, or “khai chart” (ขายชาติ) in fact literally means to sell off the country.
With such mindset, Thais who are brainwashed by the state-imposed notion of nationalism naturally equate permitting foreigners to own Thai land a seditious act that is gravely detrimental to national security as land ownership is perceived as an integral part of national sovereignty.
Never mind that only a handful of Thais and Thai-Chinese families own most of the land in Thailand and most people who are upset about the Prayut Cabinet for approving the idea last month own little or no land themselves.
According to Dot Property, an online property website, as of 2018, the Beer Chang owning-clan, the Sirivadhanabhakdi family, owns 630,000 rai of land. This is followed by the CP-owner clan, the Chearavanont, with over 200,000 rai. At number four is the Crown Property which owns 30,000 rai. All these when a quarter of a rai land with a house in the outskirts of Bangkok is dream millions of Bangkokians, the vast majority Bangkok residents, would never fulfill.
Here lies the irony of the whole notion of nationalism which does not address the domestic notion of gross inequality, land, or other aspects.