Monday, June 8, 2009

Land and Foreigners

Bangkok Post:

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.


Unknown said...

Perhaps the restrictions on foreign ownership have more to do with the Thai people's distrust of their own ruling class. In neighbouring Cambodia, the elite have filled their Singapore bank accounts with the proceeds of leasing the country's most valuable land to the highest foreign bidder.

hobby said...

I agree about the big players needing to be restricted, but it gets even worse.
The director general of the Land Department has reiterated that foreigners using Thai nominees to buy land anywhere in the country will have their land title deeds revoked if caught – even if the nominee in question is a lawfully wedded spouse.
Land Department Director Anuwat Meteewiboonwut made the comments during a recent stop in Phuket ...............................
Foreigners cannot use a Thai spouse as a nominee to buy property in Thailand, however.
“If the Thai spouse has enough money to buy the house that is fine, but if the Thai has no money and uses money given to him or her by a foreigner to acquire property, that is against the law. If we check and find out later that a Thai person has been using money from a foreigner to buy land anywhere in Thailand, we will revoke title deeds,” he said.

IMO, a gift is a gift.
How far does this go - are inheritances from foreigners also at risk?

Contrast the treatment of Joe Blow foreigner with Surayud & co encroaching on forest reserves!!!

Anonymous said...

honestly, I am quite surprised to read such an article written by Thai person !

perhaps slowly and eventually attitude will change...

however I agree with Fonzi on the point of local ethnic Chinese playing important role in the current state of affairs - which actually is one of the causes which makes the big difference between the situation before 1932 and NOW. yes, Voranai might be correct in explaining the reasons why it was so in the past and to some extent why some Thais still have certain mentality towards this issue.

however I feel that Voranai surely misses this important part pointed out by Fonzi - the nowadays it is at large an influence of local ethnic Chinese, who are according to some academic studies (as Maryland Uni) here in Thailand are considered NOT as "ethnice minority" (not repressed anymore - as, say, back 100 or 200 years ago - and neither under risk of extinction of disadvantafe) but as an "Ethnoclass", which is sort of "ehtnico-economical layer in the society" I guess - and this layer or group is far from being unprevilaged, rather opposite !

in this regard, I'd like to provide a reference to the post on another blog on this matter, and I've already made a comment there, with some links to relevant articles :

Chinese in Bangkok (I)

I guess number 1 implies that it is a part one in supposed series of posts ? I'll wait and see for continuation.

interestingly, Thai reporters usually would never raise this issue - as Voranai doesn't mention it in his article. and the very likely reason for it is as author of one the quoted by me article there says : "you would never hear about it, because Chinese OWN all mass media in Thailand".

well, I never really had a chance to find any proper study on this point, but if to try examine briefly - who owns main media which I know? Yoon - Nation group; who is the owner of Bkk Post ? then Sondhi Lim comes to mind - Manager group; MCOT group - as I recall also chinese; then former owner of iTV Thaksin. Thepchai Yong is boss of TPBS now. so, practically all of these fellas are ethnic Chinese.

there are opinions (and actual facts) for example that in US all the media are own by jews, that's why the pro-Israeli lobby is so strong there, and in fact some say that any critisism of Israel there is like sort of unspoken taboo.

so, I think to certain extent the same state of affairs is in Thailand, only regarding ethnic Chinese. (that's why I guess King Rama VI even called them "Jews of Asia")

also, Fonzi - if you have ever read books by Pira Sudham, perhaps one of very few real grassroot Isaanee folks who writes in English - you may notice he points out time and again about ethnic Chinese owning many strategic businesses in this country. also that they are middlemen and millers in provinces, responsible for price suppression. also one the main characters in his 2 books is ethnic chinese and his parents are trying to arrange marriage for him with bride of "pruer dragon blood" ...

so, there is a lot of this well known among the general public - but one may never see the open discussion on this matter in Thai MSM or TV. and even intellectials and ajarns too - well, because after all, almost all of them are ethnic chinese themselves. as are majority of all the gov. people and politicians and businessmen.

and as long as this state of affairs continues - the land ownership by foreigners will be out of question !

hell, what foreigners - even the native local people slowly but surely lose their land plots to the rich and powerful crony capitalists, who incidentally happen to be ... mostly ethnic chinese ! that's why there are article (as the one on which BP has already blogged) : "Colonised by middle class". because "middle class" is mostly - ethnic chinese !

Fonzi said...


I'd actually prefer not to bag on the Chinese, but the hypocrisy is too apparent to ignore.

They are the most adamant people when it comes to the "evil foreigners" owning Thailand.

The fact is that they came to land ownership because they settled and married local Thais.

The Chinese own most if not all the means of production in Thailand. This is indisputable, not a racist fantasy. Most of the early Chinese immigrants worked their backsides off to become successful, no doubt. They didn't start as rich billionaires out to take over Thailand. I don't think there ever was such a nefarious intent.

The irony is that now they want to restrict non-Chinese from doing what they did themselves in order to protect the national sovereignty of Thailand, because they want to protect their turf.

Yes, it is absurd, hypocritical and stupid, but, then, they get away with whatever they want, and if the ethnic Thai population accepts the Chinese as their brothers and fellow compatriots, what else is there to say about it?

Anonymous said...

perhas the real question is: does actually ethnic Thai population accept them as such ? ;)

Pira Sudham for example in those 2 books I've read didn't mention word Thailand or Thai at all - he rather says "Siam' and "Siamese" - in contrast to Esarn / Lao.

also as I recall a month or 2 ago there was an article on Prachathai where some ajanr has published an open letter to Abhisit with his own suggestions what need to be included into new revised Constituion, and among other things he has mentioned changing country name from THailand back to Siam, to respect the fact that there too many ethnic groups in Thailand, and not all of them are Thai.

here it is :

Former Thammasat Rector calls to change country's name to Siam

"Well-known historian Charnvit Kasetsiri calls on the PM to adopt Siam as country's name, abolish the Senate, and restore Thonburi province.
First: To amend the words ‘Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand’ to read either ‘Constitution of the Kingdom of Siam’ or ‘Constitution of Siam,’ in order to promote ‘unity,’ ‘harmony,’ and ‘reconciliation’ in our country, whose more than sixty million citizens include over fifty distinct ethnic groups with their own languages: Thai, Tai, Yuan, Lao, Lue, Melayu, Mon, Khmer, Kui, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hailam, Hakka, Cham, Javanese, Sakai, Mokhaen, Tamil, Pathan, Persian, Arab, Ho, Phuan, Tai Yai, Phu Tai, Khuen, Viet, Yong, Lawa, Hmong, Karen, Palong, Museur, Akha, Kammu, Malabari, Chong, Nyakur, Bru, Orang Laut, Westerners of various kinds, people of mixed descent, etc, etc."

it would be could if Charnvit could provide further info about exact percentage of each of 50+ ethnic groups to see the number fo real "Thais".

so, I guess the only reason why the "ethnic Thai population" (or more exactly all those who're non-chinese - although not necessarily Thais themselves, but all the varieties of ethnic minorites as Hill tribes, or even a "majority' as Isaanees/ Lao but disadvantaged) are seemingly "accepts the Chinese as their brothers and fellow compatriots". because they, these so called "ethnic Thai population", are themselves a bunch of enthnic minorities, not at al united, although sharing some similar language and culture.

so, it is too easy for "masters" (as Pira calls them - Central Thai or Siamese, or I guess real Thais) to rule over all these people hand in hand with ethnic Chinese. or perhaps now roles has reversed - rather ethnic Chinese rule over all other ethnic minorites, and Thais / Siamese themselves has become an ethnic minority only somewhat slightly better off than other groups.

wesleyhsu said...

When we say "Chinese" do we mean ethnic or national?

An ethnic Chinese who was born here and thus has a Thai passport has all the rights of a Thai because legally he/she IS Thai.

An ethnic Chinese with a Chinese passport and a Thai spouse is subject to the same rules as a Brit with the same conditions legally, although with insider connections can play to some advantage.

I knew a farang woman here who was born here to British parents, but had a Thai passport. She was able to buy property legally.

Anonymous said...

Fonzi's and anti-pad suspicion that ethnic Thai Chinese resist foreign ownership of land just defies logic. If the common perception that these ethnic Thai Chinese own the most land in Thailand is true, then where is the economic sense (where is the money????) in keeping out eager buyers of land (foreigners who else)?

A response from Fonzi or anti-pad?

Personally I believe that it is precisely because eager foreigners could send land prices in Thailand sky-high because of speculation that those in government, rightly or wrongly, continue to discourage foreign ownership.

Fonzi said...


You got a point.

If you are a Thai developer, you probably would want foreign ownership of land, because you'd make a lot of money.

I don't agree with the nominee business, but if you look at the development in Phuket and Pattaya, that is mostly with foreign money.

So I guess there is way around the ownership issue and still can drive up land prices, despite the law.

It is a tricky issue.

I actually think there should be some restrictions, especially with farm land, but at the same time I think what could hurt to have some foreign money develop sections of the country that are underdeveloped.

Thailand could probably have laws that are a win-win situation for everybody which protects the environment, protects Thailand's sovereignty, and doesn't uproot millions of people from their property.

I don't see how a foreigner owning a home with his wife on a rai of land hurts anybody, for example, but who knows what goes on in the heads of policy makers.