Why can't foreigners own a piece of the Land of Smiles? This is a contention that no doubt preys on the minds of many of the country's foreign residents.
The argument for foreign residents being able to own land is sound enough. They live here, work here, pay tax here, marry here and aim to spend the rest of their lives as a part of Thai society. So why can't they own land of their own, the fruit of their labours? Is Thai law regarding land ownership xenophobic, even racist? Perhaps so, perhaps not - no conflict is ever so simple.
From listening to radio talk shows and reading Thai web boards, it is clear that the Thai sentiment is against foreign ownerships. Why is that? We are such nice and friendly people. Call it fear and suspicion, which has been fostered and shaped through over a century of history.
All Thais are proud that their country has never been colonised. (Yes, I know Thailand was occupied by Japan during World War Two.) At the same time, most Thais resent how Western powers systematically shifted away the land we considered ours (namely the British and the French - the Malaya states and Indochina) and held legal, trade and tax privileges over Siamese people living in Siam. To understand why Thais think and act as we do today is to understand Thai history and the Thai consciousness.
As a result of gunboat diplomacy, Thailand - then known as Siam - was forced to sign the Bowring Treaty (on April 18, 1855) with the United Kingdom. The many privileges granted to the UK included extraterritorial rights, in which British subjects residing in Thailand were placed under consular jurisdiction, not Thai law. There were also privileges in trading, tax and land rights. Thirteen other western powers, plus Japan, were also able to force similar treaties.
These were unequal bilateral contracts, as Siam was not in a position to negotiate. However, the treaties also secured Thailand's independence and arguably, contributed to the economic development of Bangkok.
In 1932, when Thailand shifted from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy - a primary aim was to regain our "independence", to do away with extraterritorial and other "unfair" treaties forced on the Kingdom by the West.
Fast forward to today. Those historical lessons invoke in Thais a feeling of patriotism, and with it, fear and suspicion of the West. We grew up reading books and hearing stories of how Thailand, or Siam, suffered under the bullying of Western powers. It has become part of the collective consciousness of the nation to protect and preserve what is ours.
Depending on whom you ask, this may make sense to some, while others may think it purely reactionary. Or it could just be a natural consequence of history - unavoidable. Thailand is not unlike many countries in the world today that view the West and Westerners with fear and suspicion. It's a matter of historical consequence.
So where do we go from here?
It is interesting to note that our neighbour to the south, Malaysia, which was a British colony, encourages foreign ownership of land and sees it as economically beneficial to Malaysia and its people. Why is a country that was once colonised so welcoming, while a country that has staved off colonisation is so resistant? Perhaps the question is the answer. When you have a long history of resisting with a measure of success, you can't help but continue to resist.
Be that as it may, it could be easily argued that the Toms, Dicks and Harrys living in Thailand today are not the same people as those abusing and exploiting Siam over a century ago. This seems obvious and reasonable to those who are well acquainted and have friendships with Tom, Dick and Harry.
But then again, it could be as easily argued that over 100 years of fear and suspicion are not easy to shake. The collective consciousness to protect and to preserve what is ours from those we considered to already have so much and have taken so much. Especially for those of us who don't know any Tom, Dick or Harry in our personal lives - and that's the majority of Thailand.
My personal feeling is that every sovereign country has the right to determine how they want to dispose of their own land, private or public, and there is nothing racist about it.
Most Thais don't want foreigners owning real property. End of story.
The irony, of course, is that the foreigners who do own most the land--the Chinese--don't want other foreigners owning Thai land. And the Chinese feel they have the right to scoop up as much foreign land as they want in the West.
This makes them hypocrites, of course, but nobody cares if the Chinese are hypocrites.
The westerners who complain about land ownership in Thailand could prevent foreigners from owning property in their countries, but they chose not to out of White guilt and political correctness, or maybe they want the foreign capital and believe in liberal economics.
In terms of economics, I think foreign ownership of land would be a good thing. It probably should be limited in scope though. Thailand shouldn't really fear the farang over the land issue; the bigger worry should be the mainland Chinese.