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Thailand: Stay off my rice paddy

As wealthy foreigners scoop up Asian farms, Thailand says no way.

A farmer holds a dog on a rice field in Ayutthaya province, 50 miles north of Bangkok, Jan. 24, 2008. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — To many tiny, overdeveloped or arid nations, Southeast Asia’s jade-green fields have never looked more desirable.

Rich countries barely able to eat off their land — think Singapore or Saudi Arabia — have in recent years secured vast African or Southeast Asian farmlands to feed their people. Qataris and Saudis control millions of farmable acres in the Philippines and Indonesia. Corporate interests in Singapore just inked deals to pour $40 million into Cambodia’s largest corn plantation.

Even Burma’s military junta promises via its clunky website to waive taxes for foreign investors seeking farmland.

As for Thailand? The world’s leading rice exporter and one of Asia’s most fertile nations? Forget it. Mere rumors of Arabs nabbing Thai rice fields through proxies has stoked a patriotic backlash and recharged Thailand’s anti-colonial spirit.

“It’s easy to whip up nationalist sentiment in Thailand,” said Supavud Saicheua, executive director of the Bangkok-based Phatra Securities firm. “Even the specter of foreign domination gets people upset.”

Even in a global food shortage, and against the advice of respected economists, Thailand appears unlikely to sell rice paddies to outsiders. To many Thais, that would be like ceding a piece of the kingdom’s soul. The paddies symbolize boundless fertility, a social safety net waiting to nourish and provide for those who’ve lost work elsewhere.

Thailand’s proud resistance to invaders — it’s the only mainland Southeast Asian nation that escaped colonization — lives on in a wall of legal barriers to foreign ownership. Foreigners are forbidden from owning Thai land, farming Thai soil or, outside of exemptions, owning a business without a Thai joint venture.

But according to a recent broadcast by the Thai PBS channel, Middle Eastern businesses secretly undermined Thai sovereignty last year by buying up rice farms through surrogates. That report set off fears that a new wave of agri-colonialists has Thailand in its sights, even after a government investigation turned up no illicit proxy farms.

Foreigners are explicitly banned from agriculture through Thailand’s Foreign Business Act, which also sets aside fisheries, legal services, restaurants and tourism as industries in which “Thai nationals are not yet ready to compete with foreigners.”

Some experts disagree, arguing that barriers to outside competition preserve monopolies and maintain appalling inefficiencies in Thai-only sectors. Even Thai industries that are likely fit to compete with foreigners, such as the award-winning advertising sector, remain on the no-foreigners list.