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A Tale of Two Villages

Thanh Truc, Vietnam


Life was simple for fishermen at the remote Thungnangdam Moo 5 village in southern Thailand two and a half years ago, when the only energy available in their wooden leaf-tiled homes was kerosene. Today, each family lives in a sturdy concrete house with utilities that would have been enough for the entire village in the old days. But some would hesitate to call this an enjoyable life.

“I want to turn back to the way of life before,” said Yawah Jongrak, a community leader from this fishing village once situated on a strip of land facing the Andaman coast, 20 kilometers from the nearest town of Kuraburi district in Phang Nga province. The Muslim fishing village was totally destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.

The giant waves killed more than 5,000 people in six southern provinces in Thailand, with more than 2,000 still missing and tens of thousands of properties damaged. But the tsunami’s toll was greater than that.

Gone with the wave was a long-standing way of life. Before anyone could realize it, division, distrust and uncertainty made their way into a number of communities throughout the tsunami-stricken provinces. Unlike debris on the beach that could be cleaned up, the divide inside communities was there to stay.

After the tsunami, Thungnangdam was separated into two. Half of the villagers settled in Paktriam village on a three-rai plot of land provided by the Rotary Foundation, just 5 km from the original village but further inland. The other half resettled in Chai Pattana, named after the Chai Pattana Foundation, which was another 5 km from Paktriam.
Each village is made up of two rows of confronting bungalows separated by paved lanes large enough for a van. Situated on five rai, the white-painted Chai Pattana is more spacious with more trees than the brownish-painted Paktriam.

The tale of the two villages posed a range of issues neither Yawah nor his fellows would ever imagine. 

Before being hit by the giant wave, Thungnangdam was a village with hardly any possessions. Without electricity, the majority of the village depended on kerosene to light up while just a few families used batteries. Fresh water was bought from town. There was no precious asset in the village, except for three black and white TV sets, the only connection to the outside world.

Despite privation, people were generous and willing to share what they had with each other. “Now people have more materials, but it’s made them selfish and unkind,” said the 69-year-old Yawah, whose new house includes a refrigerator and color TV. It is one of 23 well-equipped houses built by the Rotary Foundation, a non-partisan organization of business and professional leaders with headquarters in the US state of Illinois. 

Double the population would have shared the wealth had it not been for a disagreement on where to live. “The relationship started to get worse. We couldn’t agree with each other (on the resettlement plan). We fought against ourselves and separated into two groups,” said Yawah, now a strong community leader. The wrinkles on his sun-tanned face grew deeper, and the saltiness in his firm voice sounded bitter as he recalled this part of the story.

Displaced by the monstrous wave, which destroyed all the houses and killed two children, villagers moved to a couple of shelters, including make-shift tents and a mosque. The split did not really happen until the arrival of aid organizations four days after the disaster.

Runee Areesawad, phu-yai-ban (village head) of Chai Pattana, blamed NGOs for forcing the 45 households apart. “The NGOs tried to help, but they just separated us,” lamented the petite old lady who was voted leader of her community two years ago. She could never forget New Year’s Day 2005, when they split into two groups. The division was intense then, with many arguments among villagers. Yawah’s group agreed with the suggestion of NGOs to set up a new village in Paktriam, while others wanted to move back to Bokiem, near the original village but on the other side of the peninsula.

Using the length of her arm to illustrate the distance, Runee continued: “At that time, we didn’t see the place and didn’t know that the tsunami had reshaped the peninsula. Then we realized Bokiem was far from the sea and we did not want to move there anymore.”

While the second group still fumbled over its decision, the construction of 23 houses for the first group was in its last phase. A children’s center and mosque were also built. When it was over, the other disillusioned 22 families wanted to stay in the same village as their former neighbors, but there was not enough room. They called the Chai Pattana Foundation, a Royal Initiative Project, to ask for help, but ended up in a new village that wasn’t any closer to the sea.

The division of Thungnangdam split many families. Almost everyone has a relative living in the other village. For Radeewan, who is now living in Paktriam, it meant she could not visit her father-in-law as often as before. “I still miss my old home, which was just a stone’s throw away from my in-laws,” she said. The 26-year-old mother of two used to come to her in-laws’ house everyday for a chat or family gathering. After the tsunami, with her in-laws in Chai Pattana, it has been inconvenient to go there daily.

Aid from NGOs after the tsunami has no doubt helped the lives of many survivors, but it has also brought plenty of problems. “The post-tsunami period saw a wake of change in the relationship between neighbors in communities, and the main reason was money. Many organizations came and many money-related issues arose,” said Krongkaew Panjamahaporn, manager of the Community Development Program for the Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC).

The 26-year-old woman has spent 14 hours a day, 6 days a week in tsunami-stricken communities for the last two and a half years. She has seen a lot of the “side-effects” of NGO aid. Each time she has worked with a community, Krongkaew has learned of division and disrespect to newly elected leaders, who are often accused of corruption and misuse of donated funds. “Sometimes, the help from organizations may kill them (the village),” Krongkaew said. 

For Bhatchara Aramsri, a project researcher on post-tsunami recovery who has traveled to many communities over the past five months, there are two reasons behind the division. “The main reason is because of unequal aid. Some villagers got fewer donations and some got more… The second one is about the community leader, who plays an important role in distributing donations.” Bhatchara declined to comment on whether that was the case for the leader of the original village of Thungnangdam. But she said she had seen how the leaders affected the fate of the entire village in other communities. 

“Take Thungwa village, for example,” she said. “It is a Moken village in Phang Nga province which was also divided into two after the tsunami because there was dissatisfaction between villagers about the community leader.” She said Thungwa split into two sides afterwards – one supported the leader while the other opposed him, accusing him of favoring relatives with aid money.

Unequal aid has also been a headache for Thungnangdam inhabitants. While villagers in Paktriam got everything free of charge from donors, those in Chai Pattana have had to pay. Each household must pay 1 baht per day in rent to the Chai Pattana Foundation.

The imbalance can be seen in other ways. Just visit the pier a few kilometers from the two villages where fishermen set sail. Anchoring near the free-of-charge donated traditional wooden boats of Paktriam villagers are painted brown fiberglass boats of the Chai Pattana fishermen. They look the same, but on sunny days, standing bare foot on the latter’s heat-capturing prow could burn one’s feet. The fiberglass boats become more problematic in big waves, when they are prone to sink. Once they sink, it is a disaster because they become too heavy to be retrieved. Three fiberglass boats have sunk so far. The unsuitable boats also came with a price. Each household has to pay 500 baht per month for the first year and 1,000 baht per month from the second year. In total, they have to pay back 56,000 baht for each fiberglass boat to Chai Pattana, the foundation that provided them.

Such differences further strained relations between villagers, even though the aid bodies did not intend such an effect. “I feel it’s unfair,” said Kamonwan Raksakit, a villager of Chai Pattana. “Paktriam villagers received a lot of support (from NGOs). I feel like we are a second-class group.”

The divorced mother of two, who is in her mid-30s, has to pay the Agricultural Bank more than 1,000 baht per month in interest. Not only Kamonwan, but the whole village of Chai Pattana is now in debt and lives in uncertainty. They borrowed a lot of money from the bank and NGOs to buy fishing tools. All of them stopped paying for the fiberglass boats last year, even though they are due to pay for several more years. Runee Areesawad, the village leader, said the boats were still in use, but Chai Pattana announced that they would take them back. “We have no idea what we would use to go fishing then,” she said. Chai Pattana Foundation could not be reached for comment.

The split between the two villages is not the only division. There are even divisions within the villages. In Chai Pattana, it can be seen in the vacant ground of wild grass behind the community house. Two years ago, it was supposed to be paved with concrete to make a children’s playground, but many villagers opposed the plan, saying it was a waste of money.

A similar spat happened in Paktriam. With donations from the Washington DC Foundation, villagers agreed to buy a used car to take children to school. But little more than a year later, the car was abandoned like a pile of scrap-iron at the corner of the village after it broke down. No one wants to be responsible for fixing it.

It was half past three in the afternoon in Paktriam, when the shadows grew longer than one’s figure. The call for prayer rang loudly through the public speaker at the end of the village, reminding the Muslim inhabitants of the 23 households of the fourth prayer of the day. The prayers must go on, and so does life.


Copyright 2009 IMMF.