The catastrophic Dec 26 tsunami 14 years was a turning point in the lives of many, including Maitree Jongkraijug, who has been on a journey of self-discovery ever since.
The tragedy has provided the social activist, from Nakhon Si Thammarat, the inspiration to work for the common man who is beset by local problems but has no resources and no one to liaise with in efforts to solve problems.
In its aftermath, the tsunami thrust Mr Maitree into social advocacy for his adopted community of Ban Nam Khem, where terrible destruction occurred in Phangnga.
The tsunami taught him that humanity always wins the day. But, the experience he has cultivated from his work also serves as a reality check. He has found that securing help from the authorities is untenable without dialogue and reasonable compromises.
The Ban Nam Khem community in tambon Kuk Kak of Phangnga’s Takua Pa district was left in ruins by the tsunami which killed 1,400 people.
Mr Maitree lost almost 40 of his relatives and family members, including his father, in the tsunami that barrelled down several western coastal provinces of Thailand following a 9.1-magnitude earthquake that struck beneath the Indian Ocean near Indonesia.
Houses and farmland were obliterated and countless dead bodies were strewn over vast areas. Those who survived the devastation struggled to come to terms with how to rebuild their lives.
“At that time, I was totally stunned by the incident,” said Mr Maitree, adding he was trying to figure out what can be done to get back on his feet and help the affected residents, ranging from searching for the missing to looking for locations where shelters could be set up for displaced people.
Amid his bereavement, he managed to locate his father’s body. But, to hold a funeral in Ban Nam Khem in the aftermath of the disaster was unthinkable as too many bodies had been recovered which simply overwhelmed the local temple’s capacity to cremate them.
“I asked to keep my father’s body at a temple in his hometown in Nakhon Si Thammarat and then I hurried back to Phangnga to deal with the immense chaos in the communities.”
Mr Maitree hit the ground running as problems the tsunami left behind had to be sorted out and prioritised.
“Some people suffered intense mental conditions,” said Mr Maitree, adding some even developed major depressive disorder (MDD), while others who witnessed or experienced the disaster first hand were gripped by severe paranoia.
Authorities tried to address the problems by leaving victims or their families with phone numbers of specialists who provided psychiatric consultation. However, this was no solution as people who were grieving were in no mood to call anyone. Some did not even know they were suffering from depression.
“I don’t think what they [the authorities] did was right,” said the 45-year-old.
Authorities, he said, also built temporary shelters for victims far from where they made a living and the facilities did not suit the people’s way of life.
“They did not really understand how the communities and the people lived,” Mr Maitree added.
He figured he would fit in as a coordinator, liaising with various parties to get help across information to tsunami-affected residents in a timely fashion. He was able to capitalise on his knowledge of where everything was in the damaged areas and directions to people’s homes.
Before long, his work to assist tsunami victims also expanded to other groups. He stepped in to help mediate land right disputes for the sea gypsies, called the Moken.
Such collaborative efforts morphed into the bigger framework of the so-called the “Creation of Phangnga Happiness” project, which is run by the civic network Mr Maitree leads.
The project helps people in the communities receive assistance from government agencies and stakeholders who face problems such as a lack of citizenship and land disputes.
He conceded that in the beginning stages of the project, his network only received lukewarm cooperation from state agencies, which regarded them as troublemakers bent on raising unjustified demands.
The group may not see eye-to-eye with local authorities on many issues, but he does not think they have to be hostile to each other. In fact, the group assembled to welcome provincial governors at local events. The group’s presence diverted the authorities’ attention to what the group was doing, Mr Maitree added.
“We learned that if we want to raise the living standards of people in Phangnga, it is crucial to listen to each other and make compromises where compromises are due,” the activist said.
He said that after a series of talks, the state authorities were convinced of the merit of the project, which looks at non-confrontational ways to tackle longstanding problems at the grassroots level.
He conceded the experience has given him precious lessons about his approach to conflict resolution. He used to rail against what he thought was not right. Now, he is more mature in his thinking and opts to listen more to others.
“I’m often asked to recap information during meetings before the group reaches its decisions,” said Mr Maitree. “We work as a team.”
Ban Nam Khem has now turned into a model community for disaster preparedness, where people from other areas visit and learn from their practices.
Mr Maitree graduated with an electrical engineering degree from the Phuket Rajabhat University. The father of two owns an ice-making business and a restaurant in Phangnga.
Mr Maitree, who is the community representative, has been invited to share his experience in disaster prevention management to others domestically and aboard.
After a powerful 7.5-magnitude hit Sulawesi in Indonesia last month, which triggered a tsunami on the island, Mr Maitree became a focal point for the media who interviewed him about what may have been the flaws in disaster preparedness of Indonesian authorities and what could be done to deal with similar situations in Thailand.
Before the Dec 26, 2014 tsunami hit Ban Nam Khem, Mr Maitree ran an ice factory that supplied ice to fishing trawlers before they left shore. More than 300 local fishing trawlers were at the village at that time of the disaster.
After the tsunami, only 30% of local fishermen remained at Ban Nam Khem. Others switched to farming, landed jobs in factories or set up businesses in the tourism sector.
Mr Maitree is now happy working for his community with several assistance programmes that have been well supported by private and state organisations.
“Today, I attend training courses whenever I have the opportunity. They enrich me,” said Mr Maitree. He stressed that although he knows a lot of people and holds a high position in disaster prevention advocacy, he harbours no ambitions to enter politics or seek public office.
He feels content with devoting his time and energy to the “Creation of Phangnga Happiness” project with the role of promoting small-scale development schemes which originate in local areas, such as in tambons, before spreading to the districts. The project has also brought together multiple related parties to address local problems.
For example, tambon Bangwan of Khura Buri district has come up with a community garbage management scheme, in which rubbish is separated at home with some designated for recycling. The scheme requires a collective effort from the residents, the local leaders and government offices to design the best approach to adopting the scheme and motivating people to act on it.