Open Development Initiative supports a network of organizations co-managing a common open data and knowledge platform to illuminate development trends in the Lower Mekong region at country and regional levels. Would you like to join efforts with us in building a data and information ecosystem to support transparent sharing of development data and inform constructive dialogue and decision making for sustainable development in Thailand? We are looking for national partners to contribute to establishing Open Development Thailand. Learn about how you may participate here.


Open Development Initiative is currently seeking partners to manage Open Development Thailand. This page is published here to demonstrate a redesigned user interface with improved navigation and content discoverability. The country site selector on the top bar allows users to discover similar content on another country site or the regional site. Click on the Open Development Mekong logo on the country selector bar to read about land governance at the regional level or click on the Open Development Cambodia logo to read about land governance in Cambodia. Would you like to contribute to Open Development Thailand? Please get in touch with us.

The most prosperous country in the Mekong region, Thailand also has the longest-standing land policy and practices, including an uninterrupted tradition of private land ownership. The Land Code Promulgating Act was issued in 1954 and was most recently amended in 2008.1 This legal framework has remained essentially stable through a succession of varying political regimes, while the status of land has changed dramatically. In 1961, Thailand had 53 percent forest cover; by 2006, that had shrunk to 25 percent. Agricultural land expanded rapidly through forest clearance, then decreased through conversion to urban or commercial uses.2 In recent years, agricultural land has recovered, and now 43 percent of the country’s total area is used for farming.3 Increased population, the liberalization of land markets, and the growth of agribusinesses are among the factors affecting land ownership; there is a growing number of landless or land-poor farmers.4

Land policy and administration

Thailand‘s land administration system is viewed as an efficient and transparent model for other countries.5 Multiple government ministries and agencies are involved, each authorized by different laws and with separate mandates.6 Responsibility for agricultural and residential land management, including titling and registration, rests with the Department of Lands of the Ministry of Interior, which operates through a system of provincial and district land offices.7 Most administrative procedures can be completed in less than a day, and land registration costs around 1 percent of the property’s value.8

The National Land Allocation Committee that is established in the Land Code is now chaired by the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE).9 Formed in 2002, MONRE is responsible for water and forest management, among other areas.10 Among MONRE agencies, the Royal Forest Department (RFD) has historically been a powerful actor managing national forest reserves and protected areas.11 The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives includes the Agricultural Land Reform Office and Land Development Department, which are responsible for allocating land to farmers and land-use classification, respectively.12

Riverside slums over a waterway in Bangkok. Photo by erozen, Flickr, taken 26 February 2009. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Riverside slums over a waterway in Bangkok. Photo by erozen, Flickr, taken 26 February 2009. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The 1954 Land Code establishes a division between private property, which is legally protected by land titles, and state land, which includes all land “over which no one has possessory rights”. State land may be given as concessions, rented or leased by the government; separate provisions pertain to mining and forestry.13 Alone in Southeast Asia, Thai law allows foreign investors to own land, under particular restrictions and at lower amounts than Thai citizens.14 Among other relevant pieces of legislation are the 1975 Agricultural Land Reform Act, 1983 Land Development Act, and 2004 Land Readjustment Act.15 In 2007, Thailand passed a Community Forest Bill after more than 15 years of consultations between the RFD and civil society groups.16 However, in 2009 the Constitutional Court ruled that the 1961 National Park Act took precedence, and the Community Forest Bill never became law.17 The MONRE minister noted that many other land allocation schemes have failed, as land fell into the hands of landlords.18

According to the interim Constitution promulgated by the military government that took power in 2014, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order “shall have power to order, restrain, or perform any act, whether such act has legislative, executive, or judicial force.”19 This includes amending or reversing existing laws or procedures, including those concerning land. For instance, in May 2015, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha issued Order No. 17/2015 to declare five special economic zones (SEZs) resulting in expropriation of land.20 In order to narrow disparities in land access, the government plans to allocate 195,000 rai (31,200 ha) of state land in 47 provinces to over 43,000 landless families; the land will be managed by cooperatives, not privately owned.21

Land classifications

Thailand undertook a large-scale land titling program from 1984-2004, aiming to clarify existing but undocumented ownership patterns and improve land administration in a comprehensive legal system. Over 11.5 million titles were issued during this period.22 The program was jointly funded by the Royal Thai Government, World Bank, and Government of Australia, and was viewed as a notable success.23

Approximately 40 percent of the total area of the country has been classified as private land, including 71 percent of agricultural land, with the highest rates in southern provinces.24 Analysts claim that smallholders’ rights are still less than those of organizations or larger land-holders, due to varying entitlements in different laws.25 While those issued titles enjoy high tenure security, the system has not reached residents of urban informal settlements or occupants of forest land. In such cases, other types of temporary occupancy and use rights are issued, with fewer rights than for full ownership.26

Nearly 19 percent of Thai land is classified as protected, including national parks and wildlife reserves – the highest rate in mainland Southeast Asia excluding Cambodia.27 Indigenous groups and migrants, living mainly in the northern highlands, follow customary laws and practices governing access and use of land. Much of this land is classified as state forest land, and national laws do not recognize customary land rights.28 The Community Forest Bill accepts the legal right of forest communities to preserve and manage forestland, but community rights are limited to “original forest dwellers” who have lived in forest areas for at least ten years. According to civil society advocates, this provision excluded 20,000 communities living on the rim of protected forests.29

As in many countries, gender is also a factor affecting access to land. Legally, women have equal rights of land ownership, but men customarily control most land, particularly in rural areas.30

Land transfer and public land lease

Both private and public land can be leased for terms up to 30 years. Between 11 percent and 30 percent of agricultural land is under some form of tenancy.31 As much as one-third of agricultural land in the central region is leased, with much lower amounts in other regions. Landless households made up between 6 percent and 14 percent of the total in the 1990s.32

Thailand’s previous constitution guaranteed compensation for expropriation of private property for the public interest. These procedures were generally followed in the legal system, with several exceptions in cases of indigenous people losing land for infrastructure development.33 The 2014 interim constitution does not contain any provisions about land transfer.

Source: Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand. Created by ODI June 2016. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Explore the data

In 2014, the government approved a plan to create 10 SEZs in a total of 90 sub-districts in border areas. The SEZs are a part of a national strategy to stimulate economic growth, attract foreign investment, foster development of border areas and support ASEAN integration.34 The first five areas announced in 2015 cover an area of 1.83 million rai (293,200 ha).35 In January 2016, the government announced a plan to acquire 14,382 rai (2,301 ha) for the five second-phase SEZs.36 The new economic zones are in addition to 44 existing industrial parks and six technology parks managed by the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT).37

Land dispute resolution

Prior to widespread land titling, many public land areas faced common problems of encroachment, illegal occupation, and overlapping claims. At present, most land conflicts are concentrated in forest areas of different categories, including national parks and protected areas. Underlying causes include prior clearance and usage of forest lands prior to declaration as forest reserves; new in-migration due to competition over economic resources; speculation and collusion; policy ambiguity and bureaucratic overlap.38 The main parties to forestland conflict are indigenous communities, conservation interests (including the RFD), and companies developing infrastructure and mining.

According to the United Nations, a series of disappearances and unexplained killings have been linked to land activism. Prominent cases since 2014 include Chai Bunthonglek — a village leader in Surat Thani province involved in a land dispute with an oil palm plantation — and Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen (Billy) — a Karen activist who had filed a lawsuit against authorities for allegedly destroying homes of 20 indigenous families in Kaeng Krachan National Park.39 Most recently, Den Kamlae, a land rights leader in Chaiyaphum province went missing in April 2016; weeks later, the provincial governor issued a warrant for his arrest.40

Most land disputes are handled peacefully and efficiently in the civil court system.41 Agricultural communities have used a mix of legal, legislative, and direct action strategies to push for land reform. For instance, the Northern Peasants Federation (NPF) and the Village Development and Strengthening Organization (VDSO) have joined with the Peoples’ Movement for a More Just Society (PMove) to press for community land titles, progressive land taxes, and a National Land Bank to assist with land redistribution.42

Last updated 6 June 2016

Open Development Initiative is currently seeking partners to manage Open Development Thailand. Until then, this page is published on Open Development Mekong. For more information, please get in touch at


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