21 October 2012

Who is in the right? Moral versus Legal

     The issue of land rights in Thailand isn’t one that can easily be solved. In our CIEE program we spend a lot of time with villagers and NGO’s who are experiencing a plethora of problems including having their land taken away or being forcibly removed from the land. Because we live and exchange with these people and not the other side, it is easy to feel sympathy for them and only want to defend their rights- because well, they do have just as much of a right to live there as anyone, right?
   On one side, yes, they do have all the rights- the moral rights that is. If we’re looking at this issue from a moral standpoint, it makes sense to want to give full benefit to the villagers. They have been on this land for hundreds of years; working and playing and raising families. For example, the railroad slum communities are living on the railroad’s land illegally and are being forced to move so Thailand can build a high speed railroad where their houses are now in preparation for joining the ASEAN economic community. The communities have been on this land without issue for over sixty years and now are being faced with the decision to stay and wait to be evicted or find new land and start over. The problem with starting over is that it costs money in which they don’t have and the state doesn’t offer much help to the slum communities. This puts the slums in a bind and one can’t help but to feel sorry that there is nothing they can do and be angry at the state for being so apathetic.
    From a moral standpoint the villagers deserve their right to the land. But, to play devil’s advocate: the railroad does legally own the land. The villagers, according to the law are well, breaking the law and have no right to be on the land. The railroad, in the eyes of the government, has been kind enough to ignore the squatters for these years and allowed them to live relatively peacefully on privately owned land, but now they have business to do and money to make, so they need the villagers off. In a legal point of view, the railroad is right and the slum villagers are wrong.
      As you can see, it isn’t easy to place blame on anyone because it depends on how and who is perceiving the situation. As students we only see one side of the problem and feel more obligated as moral beings to defend the villagers. But, if one takes the time to step back and view the situation objectively, both are in the wrong and both are in the right. This is a problem that many philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, etc. have been studying for decades, who is right and from what grounds is their being right from?- a moral one, a legal one, a cultural one, an economical one.

Brytnee Miller
Whittier College


Anya Chang-DePuy said...

I think most of the students here are struggling with this concept. It is a hard question to answer whether legality or morality should be considered more. For me, the answer is there. Although it is not completely clear, I have formed an opinion. In a wonderful world, laws and regulation would be made with morality behind each and every one of them. Laws would be put in place to protect people, not corporations or industries. The government would create and enforce laws that would prevent their people from living in bad conditions with little say in their own lives. If these were the type of laws that were in place today, the people would have rights regardless of their circumstance. For example, people in Thailand struggling with land rights should be protected by a law so that they are not told that they do not own the land they live on and must move. Because although this is the case now, and this law is in fact in place so naturally the people should abide to it, if I law is harming it's people instead of helping, isn't there something wrong there? Maybe the issue is not moral versus legal, but more of creating a more legitimate legal system that protects people instead of harms them.

Anne Sledd said...

It seems like we’ve been struggling with the land issue happening in the slums since day one. Legally the railroad company has rights to the land, and you can frame the slum residents as illegal squatters with no real claim to the land. But sixty years ago, when the railroads were being built, the railroad company not only allowed but encouraged workers to set up residence along the tracks. In this situation it’s not as if the slum residents chose to live by the tracks just because they enjoyed the music of train whistles. Maybe the workers were expected to pick up their lives and move away the instant their job was completed, but why would someone want to leave land they were told to live on, especially when there wasn’t any immediate reason to? Of course none of this changes the legal situation for the slum residents.

Ryan said...

I believe that this is a really interesting and complicated issue. Over the units we have seen land rights being an issue is almost every community. I believe you raise two good arguments about moral and legal rights. As for the legal rights I believe that it is important to recognize who has the power to determine legality and who has benefited from the introduction of land titles in Thailand. Many poor folks of Thailand hold a small voice within the country and face many challenges when trying to have their basic needs recognized. While I do believe it is good to acknowledge the moral and legal perspectives if this issue, I believe it is also important to examine the relationship between privilege and power, and who constructs legal regulations. In the case of the slum community the community members never quite had the same opportunities to owning land and having influence in how land rights would be introduced to Thailand.

Marissa Lowe said...

Anne is correct, when they railroad was being worked on, the workers were encouraged to set up homes close to the tracks so that they wouldn’t have to travel far to and from work each day. However, these residences were only meant to be temporary and those that set up homes were informed of this after their job was finished. They chose to stay, and even expanded, knowing the consequences, and for that reason the people living in these slum communities are placed at a serious disadvantage when it comes to negotiating for the land. I’m not saying that I believe the railroad is making the “moral” decision by evicting the slum residents, but I don’t think that they are being entirely immoral either. They own the land; they allowed the villagers to live there for free for many years when they could have evicted them at any point. They are only moving them now because they are using the land and it fails safety regulations for the homes to be so close to the high-speed tracks. Also, they are giving the villagers money to aid in their move; it’s certainly not enough to make them rich, but for many villagers it will allow them a new start in a cleaner, healthier home of their own, where they have legal status and don’t have to fear further eviction.

Molly said...

Going along with what Anya said, the dilemma does extend to law makers. The residents of the slums, though they know that they are trespassing, also put a lot of faith in the fact that they are Thai citizens and that their local government should have their best interests at heart... sadly, as we've seen it shake down in Thailand all too often, instead of legal or moral frameworks, problems are considered on a completely economic basis... what will make them the most money and bring more money and investors in to Thailand?

It's a flawed system though... as the rep. from the Asian Development Bank told us, the high speed train, which is designed for passenger travel, wouldn't make nearly as much money as if they were carrying cargo.

It's a very complicated issue, and in the case of development projects, it really seems like so much is merely hypothetical. But, it's certain that people's human rights are in the balance as well.

Alex A said...


Like many of the other comments, agree that it's a very complicated issue. I think one of my sayings fits well in here, "Problems are complicated, solutions are simple". I'm not sure what this is for me, but I've struggled with this a lot less than some other people in the program. I don't really try to debate the differing perspectives but look for solutions to the outcome. And yes, I concede that maybe I'm not doing this slum community due justice and consideration. That is not to say I am not sympathetic to their problem, but for me no matter who is right or wrong, at the end of the day they're going to have to move. Whether it is to conditions that are better or worse, I guess will rely on the outcome of the right vs wrong debate. But hey being a fire I can't help but move towards action rather than debate morality. A fire burns too quick to last long enough in that conversation.