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An Island of Empowerment

From the air, the many islands off the Andaman Sea coast of southern Thailand’s Trang Province look like Shangri-La: luxuriantly green, white beaches, aqua sea. Last week I visited the small village of Koh Muuk on one of them, Muuk Island.

Early and misleading reports following the tsunami of December 26 — a date referred to there as we refer to September 11 — were that the islands of Trang Province “were hardly touched at all.” The waters of the tsunami rose and engulfed everything — houses, boats, trees — but did not smash them. The 2,000 or so residents of Koh Muuk sprinted ahead of the advancing wall of water to high ground among the rubber trees, and they stayed there for four days until the waters receded and they felt safe to return.

Hence, there were no dead bodies on Muuk Island — one resident died while visiting a harder hit part of Thailand — but the waters of the tsunami nevertheless ruined their livelihoods. The people of Koh Muuk, mostly Muslims in this majority Buddhist country, are fisherfolk. They are proud of their long history on the island, and their large and brightly painted longtail boats are regarded, according to a Thai colleague, as “an extension of the self.” The tsunami damaged nearly all their boats, many beyond repair; most of the motors, all the nets and some of the houses were ruined.

Bang Ar Ren, a Koh Muuk village leader — nicknamed “Orange”; every Thai has a nickname — told us of the chaos and inequities in the early distribution of tsunami relief supplies: some received much more than others; and some supplies were inadequate, while others went begging. We ourselves, a group under the auspices of American Jewish World Service, saw large piles of donated clothing, cast-offs from the closets of the first world, as unwanted in Koh Muuk as they had been where they came from. (We heard that tons of blankets had been sent to Sri Lanka, where the average temperature is in the 90s and never falls below the mid-70s.)

The emergency relief period is now almost over, the CNN cameras are gone, and the hard work of rebuilding lives and livelihoods has begun. The Thai government and other donors have promised massive and much-needed long-term help, but the residents of Muuk Island have reason to be skeptical.

Thailand’s restive Muslim population is concentrated in the south. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s brutal “war on terrorism” has included a threat to withhold development aid from three of the southern provinces — which, in turn, has engendered suspicion among Trang’s Muslims that the government will not come through with the aid promised to them. As for aid from other quarters, Muuk Islanders know from their experience with a previous (and ongoing) disaster that he who pays the piper usually gets to call the tune.

On Muuk Island, as elsewhere, lucrative commercial fishing has rampaged the sea and devastated the lives of small-scale fisherfolk. In the words of Thai community organizer Pakpoon Whitantirawat, known as “Nok,” “We are losing the abundance of the sea which we mean to leave to the next generation.”

In the early 1990s, Muuk’s fisherfolk began to organize against this threat. They formed village councils, the councils then came together as “small fisherfolk societies” and the societies became the Trang Society of Southern Fisherfolk. In 1993, the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk was formed in 13 southern Thai provinces. Thus, the tiny village of Koh Muuk is connected to a nationwide movement to protect the environment and preserve fisherfolk livelihoods. And the councils didn’t just meet; they engaged in democratically determined collective action, such as constructing cement-filled pipe barriers to block commercial trawlers from the coral reefs, replanting mangroves and releasing fishing stock into the sea. In the words of American Jewish World Service’s Thai consultant, Duangkamol Sirisook — who goes by the nickname “Oy” — “They had laid a carpet and now they were able to walk on it.”

Then came the tsunami. Partially in response to the inequities in early relief distribution, but also to stake their claim in the rebuilding, the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk joined with other private and public entities to form the Save the Andaman Network. But nothing is easy under such devastating circumstances. So far, little government aid has been forthcoming, aid distribution through the local structure has sometimes been too slow, and money from some private donors operating outside the local structure has threatened to undermine the villagers’ independence and the collaborative system they built up throughout the years.

We saw these things up close. After meeting with the Koh Muuk council, and while surveying damage on a walk through the village, we encountered an American do-gooder, Pat James, a person of manifestly good intentions. His benefactors have apparently put him in control of a large amount of relief money, which he was spending as he saw fit, both to help selected desperate individual villagers and to set up larger-scale projects.

Up went the alarms. Only after a series of meetings with the village leadership and Save the Andaman Network representatives did James apparently agree to curtail his freelancing and collaborate with them, distributing his aid through the village community structure, which, in turn, learned its own lessons regarding speeding up its processes.

One potentially corrosive misunderstanding averted — and one community reaping the benefits of its own empowerment.

Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.

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