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Struggle Continues for Thais in Tsunami-Hit Regions

  • Ron Corben

Almost three months after the Indian Ocean tsunami crashed into the shores of Southern Thailand, many in the hardest-hit areas are still struggling to rebuild their lives and communities.

Sarot Gaowbadit is repairing his fleet of deep-sea fishing boats, all badly damaged in last December's tsunami. His village, Baan Nam Khem, lost 90 boats, both big sea-going vessels and small coastal boats, when the waves hit.

Baan Nam Khem is in the Khao Lak region of Thailand's Phang Nga province on the Andaman Sea, one of the areas hardest hit by the massive waves on December 26.

Each of Mr. Sarot's boats is worth $25,000 or more, but he says, he is doing the repair work with little government help.

The Thai government is paying 100 percent compensation to owners of smaller vessels, but deep-sea fishing boat owners are only receiving aid equal to 10 percent of a boat's value. The government says that the owners of small boats are usually very poor, while owners of bigger vessels have greater resources.

But Mr. Sarot says he faces financial difficulties as a result of the heavy repair costs.

Mr. Sarot says he has spent almost $8,000 repairing just one boat, but the government has only given him $500, $250 for repairs and another $250 to buy household items, such as a refrigerator, fans, and bedding.

He has little equipment for repairs and is in debt to a shop where he bought new tools worth $300 on credit.

Khao Lak bore the full force of the tsunami, which in Phang Nga Province claimed more than 4,000 lives. Altogether, more than 8,000 people in Thailand died or disappeared in the disaster.

Although tens of millions of dollars in government and private aid has been promised, many survivors in Thailand say they have yet to receive assistance.

Utsanee Bangavijit had a street stall in Baan Nam Khem before the tsunami washed it away. She is angry that people like her have received almost nothing to help them return to their livelihoods.

She says the government helps the owners of fishing boats, but no one is helping the street sellers, and she wonders when she will receive aid.

Thai officials say they are doing everything they can. But they say they have received false compensation claims, and therefore aid applicants must provide what they call "solid documentation" before they can get help.

Orapin Dawson, a British-based education consultant, has visited relief centers to learn how her organization, The Anglo-Thai Society in Britain, can help. Mrs. Dawson says there appears to be considerable confusion over how to get government funds.

"Even when they are told by the government that they can have 20,000 baht [$500] to repair something, they do not know where to apply, they do not even know how to apply," she said. "And you have got to have documents they not have because they have been washed [away]. If you do not have it, you do not get it, and that is sad really."

Watcharee Luangow is one of those who lost crucial documents about her home and her family. The 34-year-old woman, whose family has lived in Baan Nam Khem for more than 20 years, says she is fearful for her future.

Mrs. Watcharee says she lost her home and has no job, but still needs to find the money to send her children to school.

She is among the dozens of people living in temporary housing at a temple in her village.

Anne Mathuros Bhucharoen is a manager with an Internet community assistance project that helps market hand-made products to boost Khao Lak's economy. She says there is an urgent need for aid.

"The fisherman village, all they need is equipment and also some money to start up their new life - urgently," she aid. "They were told they would have some money coming, but they are not sure where to get or when to get [it]. So meanwhile, they need to provide for themselves in order to earn their living for fishing."

There are signs of progress. On March 13, the Royal Thai Army handed over to Baan Nam Khem residents more than 100 new permanent houses it had built. They were the first batch of 800 to be built under a government program.

The ceremony marked at least one step on the road to recovery from the trauma of the December tragedy.