Private developers laying claim to property in tsunami -devastated areas of southern Thailand are clashing with villagers who say the land is theirs. Ron Corben in Bangkok recently visited Phang Nga Province and reports on one fight to hold on to a beachfront property.

Ratree Kongwatmai lost her home and several relatives, including her father, sister, brother and eight-year-old daughter, when huge waves flattened her village in southern Thailand's Phang Nga Province.

The nightmare did not end there. The 31-year-old now faces the prospect of being thrown off the land in Baan Nam Khem village that she says her family has lived on for at least 30 years.

The Far East Company claims 32 hectares of beachfront land at Baan Nam Khem - including eight hectares that Mrs. Ratree and her neighbors say belongs to them.

Mrs. Ratree says the company has stepped up efforts to enforce its claim since the tsunami struck, telling villagers to stay away from what's left of their homes and urging them to accept compensation to leave the land.

Aid agencies say about 30 Thai villages have become involved in similar land disputes since the tsunami, which killed about 8,000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes in southern Thailand on December 26.

Under Thai law, if a person can prove he has lived on a plot of land for at least 10 years he can be granted a title deed.

Mrs. Ratree says she and her neighbors have applied for title deeds to the land, despite being turned down in the past. She has brought together 32 families to build shelters on the land to help press their claim.

Orapin Dawson is an education consultant based in Britain has been helping in the area's recovery efforts. She says their story is distressing.

"When the tsunami came, the business company, who has very much influence, has put the sign on [the land] and tried to evacuate [evict] them," she explained. "But they were living there for 30 years [so] they have no place to stay, they have no place to go."

But Mrs. Ratree and her fellow villagers could face an uphill task in claiming the land. The Far East Company has applied to the courts for a title deed and its company's lawyers say the families lack the documents to prove their claim.

A lawyer for the company, Niwat Kaewluan, says Far East bought the land from a tin mining business before the tsunami struck.

Mr. Niwat says the villagers had turned down Far East's offer to build houses on other, smaller plots of land.

"The lawyer says new land surveys are being undertaken in the area," he said. "He also criticizes the people who have moved back on the land because it is necessary to prove who had been living there before the tsunami."

The Coalition Network for Andaman Coastal Community Support has been helping people rebuild their villages and prove their land claims. But spokeswoman Sayamol Kaiyoorawong warns of the legal difficulties, particularly if a company can show it has a title deed.

"If the company has the land rights - the land title deed - generally the court will listen, the court only consider the land title deed," she said.

Thailand's surveyor-general, Pairoj Phuekvilai, says the Land Department is looking into such disputes, and making new land surveys. His office oversees surveys for property transactions.

"The people who live without certificate [title deed], now we do the ground survey for them to prove the right," he said. "It means the previous occupier can have [the title] if they occupied the land - then we try to solve their problems after the tsunami."

But the department's effort is expected to take at least two more months.

In the meantime, there are fears that businesses may be unwilling to give way easily and may resort to harsh measures to clear land.

Somchai Homla-or is with the Thai law society, which sent a team of lawyers to the tsunami area to help victims with a variety of legal problems, including land disputes.

"They will use dirty tactics or some bad influence in forcing the people out of the land and in this extent the police become the tool of the business sector in harassing the people or even they enforce the law by accusing the people of encroaching on the land of the businessman," he said.

But Mrs. Ratree says she is not afraid and will press on with her legal fight until she and her neighbors win their title deeds and rebuild their homes.