Politics, Real Estate a Toxic Brew at the Beach
In the lead-up to a recent visit by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cabinet, a flurry of controversy over picturesque Laem Singh beach has erupted.
The event was triggered by the construction of a perimeter fence around a large parcel adjacent to the beach controlled by an ownership group affiliated with a large Bangkok broadcasting company.
While a leased restaurant is located on the land, in the past few years an increasing number of illegal vendors have arrived. They not only control paid parking on public land, but have also brought a large increase in the number of sunloungers for rent. These now dominate what was once a pristine white-sand beach.
Next came a reported group of over 100 vendors who petitioned the provincial government asking for land title investigations on the plot. Then, a few days before the visit of the prime minister, protest signs cropped up on the highway fronting the site.
Timing, as we know, is everything. This year has seen other high-profile investigations over Patong Headland's contentious Freedom Beach and announcements of a series of wide-ranging land title investigations by the Department of Special Investigation.
The media soon started an onslaught of stories over the looming revocation of title deeds and – of course – the expected story lines of foreigners controlling a vast number of Phuket land parcels. Needless to say, after more than a decade on the island, I can almost predict what has become a recurring event every few years by keying in the ubiquitous title – "Land Scandal Investigations".
Perhaps even throw in a Looney Tunes sound bite for the Land Department officials who are most often quoted or misquoted about the looming menace of foreign nationals controlling astronomical amounts of Thai dirt.
But rather than vent, let's move on to the real issue at hand. Tourism and property here are intertwined like star-crossed lovers. Yes it's a bromance that could star George Clooney and Brad Pitt (note to those not in the know: "bromance" refers to a close friendship between males – and nothing more than that).
What was once the pride of Phuket, its fine beaches, are now starting to resemble Chatuchak market, only worse. It's increasingly difficult to find a place to walk, sit or even make your way to the Andaman Sea. Touts, loungers, stalls, tuk tuks and jet skis dominate the horizon.
Unfortunately for Phuket, which remains a Democrat Party stronghold, much of the present controversy and the ability to stir up land ownership issues remains focused on politics, versus a true concern for rectifying corruption and enforcing the government's authority over the public beaches.
It's hard to blame landowners, who are simply protecting their legal property. The spotlight instead needs to be focused on exactly who is responsible for the island's drift into the netherworld of concrete mass-market jungles like Majorca and Marbella in Spain.
As to the ominous question of who is in control of the beaches of Phuket? Sadly, the answer is no one.