Attempts by the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) to revamp its regulations to allow Sor Por Kor landholders to use their plots for non-agricultural purposes have raised real doubts about possible foul play, as illegitimate windfalls could be handed over to the rich and unscrupulous politicians.
Under its new policy, non-farming activities to be allowed under the new regulations being vetted in parliament include running apartment buildings, gas stations and food-processing plants, among others. Illegal occupants will be made tenants of state land.
The policy, reportedly pushed by Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry Thamanat Prompow, was received with fierce resistance from civic groups and landless farmers.
"The Agricultural Land Reform Office's revamped rules allow businessmen, investors and non-farmers to make use of land plots which the state had given to low-income farmers to help make a sustainable living. It, therefore, defeats the purpose of the Sor Por Kor land project," according to People's Movement for a Just Society (P-Move).
Alro adamantly denied the new rule was designed to favour politicians and wealthy businessmen who illegally possess those land plots.
The Sor Por Kor programme was enacted in 1975 with the aim of distributing degraded forest tracts to poor and landless farmers to harvest crops.
P-Move has expressed concern over the welfare of poorer farmers if the new plan does materialise.
It will let the business sector and investors become involved in Sor Por Kor land in supply chains. In the end, poor farmers and state land will end up being part of a larger supply chain producing cheap farm goods and services to enrich big companies.
It's highly likely that such a contentious rule could lead to even more land encroachment. Claims the new rule is needed because some land plots are not appropriate for farming activities seem strange, given that those land plots used to be forest land under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department.
However, P-Move said that some occupiers have already breached the previous rule. Some of these occupants are people with strong connections to those in the government; many are well-known politicians including Pareena Kraikupt, who operates a poultry farm in her home province of Ratchaburi.
The case was revealed when the Palang Pracharath MP for Ratchaburi put the plot of land in an assets declaration statement to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) last year.
Well-known graftbuster Veera Somkwamkid staunchly pursued the case.
Yet lawsuits against the Ratchaburi MP proceeded at a snail's pace and allegations emerged that the agency intentionally dragged its feet during the notorious case.
Previously, Ms Pareena argued the poultry farm was an agricultural activity, making her a lawful occupant. She is wrong. The NACC in early September formally accused the PPRP politician of making a false assets declaration and violating her position's code of ethics. She was given 15 days to answer the allegations.
The outspoken MP will be among those who would benefit from this new rule.
The authorities should pay heed to P-Move's calls for more effective state mechanisms in dealing with illegal land occupation. At the same time, parliament should tread with care when it comes to this matter.
If any group is to benefit from the land reform scheme, should it not be landless farmers?