Villagers say foreigners get priority
Jonathan Watts in Ban Nam Khem
Sunday January 2, 2005
Since he lost his wife, his sister, his home and the
fishing boat that was his livelihood last Sunday,
Surin Chootham has been waiting for his government to
But to his increasing frustration, the injured boatman
- who has lost the use of his legs - believes that the
Thai authorities are more concerned about recovering
the bodies of rich foreigners than supporting their
own poor compatriots.
For a week he, his three young children and dozens of
other refugees have been living in makeshift tents
outside Takuapa hospital in Phang Nga, the worst
affected area in Thailand.
They are given donations of food, water and clothes,
but Surin is still waiting for an operation to remove
the debris that has been lodged in his chest since his
boat broke apart under the wave. He says that the
doctors - like the government - are too busy looking
after the 'farang' (foreigners) to care for him.
'I cannot stand on my own two feet. I feel so sad and
helpless waiting for the government to assist me. Not
one official has come to see me.'
It is an increasingly common complaint in this part of
the country, where sympathy for the foreign victims is
mixed with resentment at the priority treatment they
are given. Although the tsunami hit rich and poor
alike, its aftermath has highlighted the sharp
divisions between affluent foreign tourists and poor
Questions have focused on the choice of priorities in
the clear-up operation and search for bodies. Hundreds
of police and volunteers were swiftly mobilised to
sift through the ruins of the Khao Lak resort, which
is where most of the foreigners died. But while they
have been working for days alongside a small convoy of
earth-movers and tractors in that area, just 30
kilometres north the equally devastated - but entirely
poor and Thai - community of Ban Nam Khem has been
left virtually untouched. More than 5,000 people lived
in the village, many of whom are thought to be buried
in the mud that covered most of the homes.
While the focus is on recovery rather than
recrimination, complaints have started to surface.
Thawee Paepei, one of the biggest fishing operators
near Khao Lak, suffered heavy damage to his fleet of
50 vessels. 'Hundreds of officials were sent to the
affected tourist destination, but none of them came
here to rescue our fishing trawlers,' he said.
On an individual level, the disaster has prompted acts
of remarkable charity and selflessness among Thais,
who have contributed generously in terms of money,
supplies and time. Many, including pop stars and
reportedly even the Prime Minister's wife, Khunying
Potjaman Shinawatra, are scouring the beaches for
bodies and helping with forensic work in the
Even so, the exodus of foreigners, their relatively
high-level medical treatment and the focus on their
needs have prompted a perception among many Thais that
the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is
unfairly giving priority treatment to foreigners
because it is so dependent on the tourist trade.
'There has been a huge effort to support foreigners,
yet nothing yet for locals,' said Ali Theeranuch
Saweangphon, a tour guide who has spent the past week
taking visitors around hospitals and mortuaries.
'Thaksin is just concerned about his international
image. There is nothing wrong with helping foreigners,
but everyone should be treated equally.'