While I was on Phi Phi island, a British tourist living in Hong Kong tells me he sees the American press as "entertainment." He doesn't read it for any insight. That's a pity...
That it's true. Thank god then there are NGOs including UN-Habitat that have noted the human rights issues related to the tsunami.
I hadn't written anything hard hitting yet because I'm looking for the appropriate venue (I'm not sure this blog is it) and I needed distance and perspective to remain fair and balanced. (BTW, I'm available for podcast interviews, etc. now that I'm home. Plus thinking of guest contributing to more appropriate and wider venues like Global Voices, WorldChanging - any other media suggestions?)
Within the first hour of my arrival in Bangkok in mid-December, the evening is winding down at Noreiga's Bar which is the meeting place I've arranged with Graeme, whom did work with UN-Habitat post-tsunami.
Stefan just happens to be there that evening when I arrrive from umpteen hours in the air from San Jose via Tokyo. He's just met Graeme himself - he came for the music and drinks. I briefly introduce myself as a writer and survivor.
"So you're here to write about the tsunami."
"The land grab, heh?"
"What land grab?"
We don't get far in our conversation before Stefan grows weary: "Ughh, can we talk about something else." Fair enough - it's not exactly light bar conversation anyhow. And it's way past two in the morning.
Turns out Stefan worked non-stop for days after the tsunami getting German tourists safely back home through his job at a major tour operator. I sense that never ever talking about the tsunami again would suit him fine.
It didn't take me long to find out land grab Stefan was talking about.
When I left Phi Phi island on January 1st, folks whose homes, bungalow resorts, restaurants, and shops were completely destroyed (repairs were allowed) still hadn't obtained permission to rebuild as the government "considers" the new zoning plan.
After the entire evacuation of the island in the days after the tsunami, many islanders have been yet to return and still live in camps in Krabi (on the mainland).
The common refrain up and down the coast especially among business owners: "The government is colluding with wealthy investors about turning it all into a millionaire's paradise."
That's just the tip of iceberg.
Prime real estate is at stake. Much of the Thailand was the King's dominion. Over generations, families lived on the land and passed it on, but didn't own it. Private property titles are a newer phenomenon - and like anything else in Asia they can be bought for a price.
As a human rights worker told me, "Those families have been 'in the way' [of developers obtaining title] for a long time. Once the tsunami came, their problems conveniently were wiped away. The developers even cite karma as the reason they deserve the land."
When there's not a building left standing and the occupants have fled for a night or two in the hills, new titles for new owners suddenly appear overnight.
Slow recovery? Considering the government's friction, the physical infrastructure recovery in Phi Phi and Khao Lak had far exceeded my expectations.
I'm no investigative journalist, but I heard too much from varied sources to dismiss. Even basic media literacy teaches us to peer closer and know what's at stake and who's invested where and what their interests are.
Anyone that spends time on the ground like this six-month volunteer notes the same: "The goverment corruption is rampant with officials and developers conspiring to move people off their land."
There is a lot of money at stake on the postcard-perfect Andaman coast, you hardly have to read between the lines. You just have to talk to people outside of government authorities and chambers of commerce.
Besides NGO reports, thank god for international press like The Economist.
Lest you think that could only happen in Asia, The Economist in the January 21, 2006 issue reported that the government may apply imminent domain in New Orleans.
"[R]esidents in the harder hit areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward (which was also hammered by Hurricane Betsy in 1965), would have until May 20th to show that they would return in sufficient numbers to keep their neighborhoods alive. If they fail to do so, homeowners could be "bought out" in some way and the areas in question could revert to swampland or be turned into parks...
[But] in general, plans to shrink the city's size could mean the end of a lot of poor black neighborhoods." - "The Big not-quite-so-Easy", The Economist, January 21-26, 2006
"Here people at least call a spade a spade," says one Asian-American volunteer in Khao Lak, "In the U.S., they'll surreptiously take a section of New Orleans and find a way to give it to Disney for a new park." He says that's exactly the rumor he hears in African-American neighborhoods back home: Disney is eyeing distressed property in New Orleans.
I've seen too many tsunami recovery and anniversary fluff pieces with loads of inaccuracies from American newspapers notably from those whom sent a reporter overseas for a few days. My suggestions to local newspapers as your profits keep sinking:
- Do a better job at covering your own locale and region and syndicate that to other papers. That's your core competency.
- With foreign correspondents you're more likely to get insight, rather than entertainment, pieces like this popular land rights story. If you can't afford to hire foreign correspondents like the two wonderful Reuters correspondents I met in Phi Phi, Ed and Bazuki, whom live in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur respectively, consider syndicating citizen journalists already on the ground and already residing in the field that already have first-hand insider knowledge of the culture, politics, religions, values, history and current events.
- Editorially guide citizen journalists that aren't familiar with foreign audience's interests on what is of interest to an outsider reader who isn't enmeshed in the same way. What they may dismiss because it's common knowledge locally might be newsworthy and compelling to a foreign audience.
- Oh, and don't expect all your citizen journalists to work solely for glory either. Consider incentives, payment, for instance, at least cover expenses. Think creatively if you are strapped for cash.
p.s. I'll be using new funds (it's tapped out now) coming in to the artisan journalism microfund to give Mon, a woman that I quickly trained to blog and lives in Khao Lak, Thailand a small stipend. I'd love to have her supply me with ground information for a while. For instance, Mon personally knows Ratree, the woman who is in the infamous land dispute in Laem Pom. (Ratree's story was originally published in Bangkok Post last April. And has been covered internationally. The BBC's early presence in Laem Pom is to be applauded; it helped kept the guns and mafia at bay and kindled the international interest which resulted in the Chicago Tribune's recent follow-up.) There's plenty more stories though. BTW, Mon is thinking about having her own public blog too (she likes to live simply in nature and in the background, so it's a bit of a sell).
p.p.s. I spent five weeks in Phi Phi, Phuket and Khao Lak through January 26, 2006.