Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Devastated by a tsunami, villagers now fight builder

The tsunami that flattened Thailand's shoreline gave developers an opportunity and they have moved quickly to seize it

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NAM KHEM, THAILAND

The first thing the Big Boss did after the tsunami hit, the people who live in this little fishing village say, was to send armed men to seal off an area of prime beachfront where 50 families had made their homes.

When survivors came to search for the bodies of their missing relatives, they say, the guards chased them off.

"This is not your land," the guards announced. "This land belongs to the Big Boss."

The most desperate and persistent of the villagers was Ratree Kongwatmai, 32, crazy with grief, she said, over the loss of her 8-year-old daughter, Panipha.

"I begged them and begged them," she said. "I spoke to them nicely, `Please let me in.' I tried everything, from the soft to the hard. And they told me, `Look out. The tsunami didn't get you, but we can get you."'

The people here are not sure just who the Big Boss is, but for three years they have been fighting the land claims of his Far East Co in court.

"Far East has wanted the land for a long time to build a resort," said a supervisor for the company, Boonsi Phuengthongkham, sitting in a shed at the edge of the disputed property.

"We have offered to give them land in a different place, but the people are stubborn," the supervisor said.

The tsunami that cleared the shoreline like a giant bulldozer in December presented developers with an undreamed-of opportunity, and they have moved quickly to seize it.

Residents of more than 30 villages like Nam Khem are being barred from returning to the ruins of their homes, according to the Coalition Network for Andaman Coastal Community Support, a nongovernmental agency.

In some cases, villagers learned only after the disaster that unknown outsiders had laid claim to the land they had lived on for decades, said Ravadee Prasert-charoensuk, coordinator of the Andaman coalition.

As they went about their lives, fishing and raising their children, the land under their homes was soaring in value.

This coastal area north of the resorts of Phuket was the next big thing until the tsunami struck, with miles of new hotels opening along the shore. Big money was paid to obtain land titles, sometimes through unorthodox legal channels.

The problem was getting these villagers out of the way. Although the fine points are complicated, squatters in Thailand generally have a right to the land they live on if nobody else has claimed it for 10 years.

Ratree and most of her neighbors said they had lived here for decades; both she and her two children were born here by the seaside.

But most of these families lack documentation, said a lawyer for the Far East Co, Niwat Kaewluan, in a telephone interview. The company, which is led by a businessman named Angkhanang Pakphon, holds the official title to all the land in question, the lawyer said.

The tsunami has complicated the court case, he said, because the land must be surveyed again and because a number of the claimants are dead.

Like many people who have suffered unbearable losses, Ratree and her neighbors have channeled their grief into anger. At the end of February, with the tacit backing of a government minister, about 50 of them gathered tools and tents and cooking pots, marched past the guards and the big orange "No Trespassing" signs and reclaimed their ruins.

They marked off the traces of what had been their homes and put up plywood signs listing the residents -- both the living and the dead. Then they started to clear the plots of their phantom buildings, even though they lack concrete or beams or roofing or cinder blocks.

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