Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of the Thai capital, Bangkok, on Monday, calling on the junta to address land rights and housing needs.
"We came today so that the government can fix the land problems and land rights of poor people throughout the country," said Somneuk Phootnuan, 60, a rubber farmer from the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Marking World Habitat Day, land rights campaigners outside the regional UN headquarters in Asia handed a petition to the UN. They then marched on to Government House, where the prime minister and cabinet sit, to demand land reforms.
In South Asia’s second-biggest economy, infrastructural development has come at a cost to local communities. Human rights groups say farmers and villagers often face threats, violence and judicial harassment when trying to defend their land.
The issue of land rights in Thailand is fraught — large swathes of government land have been in the hands of private investors for decades while farmers struggle to eke out a living.
"If we keep kicking the poor off government land, we won't have anywhere to live or make a living," Phootnuan said, as protesters waved flags and signs near the UN building.
In 2014, farmers in Klong Sai Pattana, southern Thailand, won a court case to evict an illegal palm oil plantation. The famers had occupied some of the land in 2008 – with government consent – and had hoped the court victory would mean the land would be theirs to use. However, the government’s Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) declared the villagers had to be evicted as they had “illegally occupied” the property. The ALRO was supported by a ruling in July by a junta court.
Sompong Chingduang, a police officer at the protest site, said around 1,000 people had gathered by mid-morning.
Political protests have been outlawed since Thailand's generals seized power. As a way to get around the ban, leaders of the demonstration said their gathering was not political. Police and organisers said this demonstration was one of the biggest since the May 2014 coup that saw the junta come to power.
World Habitat Day is observed annually on the first Monday of October as a way of reminding the world of people's right to adequate shelter.