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Land a very sensitive issue

The government has had its fair share of complaints recently over its foreign land ownership policy with accusations that they are "selling off" the country to foreigners.

The interior minister Gen Anupong Paojinda had to defend the policy in a House of Representatives session on Thursday insisting that it is not about selling off the country, but about stimulating the economy and attracting foreign talent and investors to live and work here.

“For those who are concerned it will lead to foreign land grabs, we’ll further add regulations to prohibit them from buying connected plots… [The plan] can be scrapped if people have serious concerns. We won’t see it as a loss of face,” Gen Anupong said.

The government is feeling the heat after the cabinet recently approved interior ministerial regulations that permit four groups of foreigners to purchase land in Thailand. The policy indeed was nothing novel but a renewal of a failed attempt by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra in 2002.

The latest ministerial regulations indicate that foreigners who obtain a long-term resident (LTR) visa will be able to buy up to one rai of land to build a house or a house already on a plot sized up to one rai under the condition that they invest at least 40 million baht over at least three years.

Foreigners eligible for the scheme comprise four groups: wealthy global citizens, wealthy pensioners, those who want to work from Thailand, and highly skilled professionals or specialists.

Meanwhile, the land must be located in Bangkok, Pattaya municipality, or any municipal area specified as a residential zone, while the scheme will be valid for only five years.

The interior ministry is running public hearings to receive feedback on how to improve the regulations. It is hoped that the government will listen to all opinions, NGOs, landless villagers, academics, not only real estate developers and businessmen.

While this foreign land ownership policy can help attract foreign talent and investors to live and work in Thailand, the government needs to be careful about unwanted side effects such as the rise of property values in major cities and urban towns, while worsening the issue of land grabs.

Land experts have urged the government to tighten safeguard measures such as increasing the investment money to be above 40 million baht, limiting foreign land buyers in each zone to prevent racial predomination, imposing zone areas, or even using land lease terms of up to 50 or 70 years.

Yet, an expert on land policy and human rights commissioner Sayamol Kaiyoorawong, has urged the government to do more by using tax measures especially to increase revenue from land and make it harder for rich people and foreigners to grab more land. She also urged the government to improve laws to check on those wanting to buy land.

Concerns over foreign land ownership need to be taken seriously by the government before moving ahead with the policy that if implemented will be the first time that foreigners can buy a residential landed house.

Government must also bear in mind that Thailand already has had far too many land problems — land grabs by local landlords and rich families, landless problems of the poor, and foreign ownership of land by proxies. The government must listen to public opinion and make a decision carefully on this matter.

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