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Nationalism is not the answer to land woes

Resistance to the controversial foreign land ownership bill is giving rise to the term khai chat — used to denounce traitors who sell the motherland — being used in political discourse. Whether a person is a government critic or supporter, he or she believes their ancestors fought very hard to protect our land and it should not be given away to foreigners.

I do not dismiss their concern for national sovereignty, but their argument should be based on the effects of globalisation. It is a case in point for how some Thais are still captured by national ideas.

The popular belief that ancestors sacrificed blood to protect our homeland can be traced back to a few key historians who wanted to promote nationalism to counter imperialism. Prince Damrong Rajanuphap produced a substantial volume of historical works. In 1920, he published Thai Rop Phama (The Thai-Burmese Wars), which delves into a series of wars that lasted for over 400 years.

It praised kings and ordinary people for defending national independence in stories like the tale of Bang Rajan, for example. Luang Wichit Wathakan played a crucial role in shaping public opinion after the Siamese Revolution in 1932. He composed patriotic songs and plays celebrating national heroes, such as Luat Suphan and Suk Thalang.

However, it is debatable whether commoners were willing to sacrifice their lives. In the Ayutthaya era, men and women were basically enslaved and conscripted. When the battles ended, they were given other jobs. But when the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya the second time in 1767, many of them bribed officials to avoid conscription, while others ran off and hid in the forest. After a long period of peace, they were not compelled to be loyal. In fact, the idea of nationhood did not exist until King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910) adopted the frontier in the late 19th century.

The kind of national history I was taught at school looks like an uninterrupted line from Sukhothai and Ayutthaya to Thon Buri and Bangkok. What we understand as the nation just emerged over a century ago.

In the old political system, there were no boundaries. Cities were separated by forest, hills or no man’s land. The turning point came in the 1860s when colonial pressure intensified in the region. While Britain seized the southern border and Burma, France took Vietnam and Cambodia. Meanwhile, western businesses, particularly timber and mining companies, started to grow. Some proposed building canals and railways. In 1880, Siam sent James McCarthy, a British surveyor, with troops to map the frontiers. The Franco-Siamese Crisis of 1893 (Ro So 112 Incident) culminated in a treaty that defined the border.

So did the concept of land ownership come during his reign via the introduction of the Land Title Deed Act in 1901 Asst Prof Kanitha Chitchang, a history lecturer at Kasetsart University, argued that the title deed law is “an important mechanism for the rulers to rule and centralise administration”. Because land use became more complex, the government would be able to monitor owners and residents and resolve conflicts, she said. Under the law, some people — locals and foreigners — were not granted title deeds, she said.

Thailand was faced with the threat of imperialism for over two centuries when the British and French carved out Southeast Asia. Today that fear persists in the form of xenophobia. To fight xenophobia, rulers need “Thainess — racial unity and patriotism.

Thais indeed are ethnically diverse and Thainess and ultra-patriotism make us take ethnic diversity for granted. Some ethnic people have even assimilated to fit the concept of our Thainess.

Indeed, some foreigners have made substantial contributions wherever they go. As the nation is a new idea, the debate over the foreign land ownership bill should depart from xenophobia to globalisation — where people move to settle in a new land and work in a different part of the world.

In the new world, countries that draw talent are lands that have open arms to newcomers who want to seek better opportunities due to many factors, including politics, finance and the environment. Talent left Hong Kong in droves when China turned inward and more nationalistic. Thais should consider whether it wants to be a land that draws global talent.

With the advent of global citizenship, we should move away from nationalism and ask how each country can lure foreigners without compromising national interests, whether we like it or not. If land is just a metaphor for opportunities, it should be fairly distributed.

A report by the Department of Land’s land dispute committee earlier this year shows only 45,000 of 66 million (0.06%) people each own more than 50 rai, while the majority — 15 million — own less than 5 rai. We never run out of opportunities or land. The problem is that only a few own so much of the land.

Thana Boonlert is a writer for the Life section and a ‘Bangkok Post’ columnist.

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