BETWEEN THE LINES: Do not squander the chance for a fresh start

News

Pandora’s box has been opened. The Asian tsunami has not only destroyed human lives, the environment and personal property but also brought to the surface the ugliness that our society has long been unaware of or simply ignored.

Let’s begin with the environment. For the sake of tourism, authorities allowed hotel-owners and operators of other related businesses to make full use of every square inch of our pristine beaches, forests and national parks. As a result, beaches became all things, shopping mall, restaurant and beauty salon all rolled into one. They were also the goose that laid the golden egg, with certain very influential figures extorting money from small-scale operators. Authorities always looked the other way, because they, too, benefited from this monkey business.

Fed up with that scene, the more affluent tourists, who may or may not have cared much about nature, moved to quieter, more peaceful sites. Local operators, though, followed the money and made it crystal clear that only foreign tourists were welcome. It was common knowledge that hotels, resorts and restaurants at Phang Nga’s Khao Lak were off limits to Thais, who were told by the hotels that they were booked solid, if they did not simply flat-out refuse hospitality. (After the tsunami drove away the foreigners, some Khao Lak restaurants erected signs reading “Thai tourists welcome.”)

In this post-tsunami era, it’s quite ridiculous to listen to authorities natter on as if they actually cared about the environment. Suddenly they’re all nature-lovers! There must be strict zoning, with no privileged persons allowed to set up too close to the beach, or so say the authorities now. They also seem to have become more concerned about our foreign guests, proclaiming that no longer will tourists be disturbed every few minutes by food-sellers, traditional masseuses and other vendors.

The authorities may actually be fooling themselves into believing what they are saying. But those long involved in the beach shenanigans aren’t buying any of it. Protests might lead to a compromise for some.

Others will not be so lucky, though, as in most cases the killer waves have unfortunately given a free hand to influential figures or operators who have been locked into lengthy land disputes with local villagers. Now that the villagers’ homes have been swept away, these operators see a golden opportunity to take control of the land. They only need a “favour” from the authorities, who have historically proved themselves more than willing to lend a helping hand. Already there have been complaints from villagers in Phang Nga’s Ban Nam Khem who have been barred from their former land by influential figures claiming ownership themselves. The villagers say they cannot even search for the bodies of missing relatives. Others have sought intervention from foreign embassies.

Elsewhere, the sea gypsies of Tambon Kuek Kak in Phang Nga’s Takua Pa district are protesting at local authorities’ plans to remove them to another district. Their former home has apparently been earmarked for the site of a new hospital and an office for the local tambon administrative organisation.

As the tsunami-affected areas eventually fade from television and the newspapers, illicit activities will resume, and it will be business as usual, while the little people suffer, as they have time and again, from social injustice, with only themselves to depend on. Society and the media have a duty to prevent this from happening. They must keep an eye on government promises concerning aid and the recovery and restoration of communities, livelihoods and the environment.

There is an urgent need to follow up on how donations are being managed. We must keep asking whether relatives of the dead and injured and those left unemployed and destitute have received sufficient compensation. Equally important is keeping track of how many of those who registered as tsunami victims have actually been assisted, be they local fishermen who lost their homes, fishing boats and all of their equipment or other types of business-operators.

The government did order the Office of the Prime Minister to coordinate donations made through government agencies, which totalled Bt954 million up to last Monday. What has not yet come about, though, is a transparent and explainable procedure of donation management at each level, central, regional and provincial. This is a cause for concern, as our administrative system has never enjoyed a reputation for efficiency or transparency, to say the least. Already the rising tide of complaints from affected communities about mysterious delays in donation distribution are serving to strengthen public doubt.

Could this be the real reason for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s refusal to accept cash donations from foreign governments? So as not to have to worry about explaining where the money has gone?

Still, his administration, present and incoming, owes a full accounting to the tsunami victims in particular and society as a whole.

BY MUKDAWAN SAKBOON

This is Mukdawan Sakboon’s final column. She has obtained a grant for advanced studies abroad, and we at The Nation wish her all the best.

Published on February 05, 2005