Thailand Rebuilds, Looks to Future After Tsunami

Thousands of floating paper lanterns fill the sky over the Andaman Sea in remembrance of tsunami vi i i

Thousands of floating paper lanterns fill the sky over the Andaman Sea in remembrance of tsunami victims during the one-year Indian Ocean tsunami anniversary in Thailand's Phang Nga province, north of the resort island of Phuket, Dec. 26. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters
Thousands of floating paper lanterns fill the sky over the Andaman Sea in remembrance of tsunami vi

Thousands of floating paper lanterns fill the sky over the Andaman Sea in remembrance of tsunami victims during the one-year Indian Ocean tsunami anniversary in Thailand's Phang Nga province, north of the resort island of Phuket, Dec. 26.

Reuters

In Depth

Words, photos tell tale of life at Thai resort after a killer storm.

Thailand's beach resort communities have been recovering slowly since the devastating tsunami struck a year ago. Hotels have been rebuilt and tourists have returned. Residents of the resort towns will commemorate the anniversary, but after that, many want to look forward rather than back.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

People in South Asia have been marking this month's anniversary of the tsunami in at least two ways. They've been holding ceremonies to remember more than 200,000 people who were killed. They've also been holding evacuation drills preparing for another disaster. Today we're going to one of the affected countries, Thailand, where the dead included thousands of foreign tourists. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao has this update on Thailand's progress one year later.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO reporting:

Bells toll at Wat Yan Yao, the Buddhist temple that was once filled with thousands of bodies from last December's disaster. Today only one body lies in this temple.

Family and friends have gathered to remember 18-year-old Ganog Ohn Citep(ph). The young woman worked in the kitchen of Banyan Beach Resort. Her body was identified only recently by forensic scientists at the Disaster Victim Identification Center or DVI. Som Noy Citep(ph), a police officer, is Ganog Ohn's father.

Mr. SOM NOY CITEP: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Som Noy sighs, saying he was prepared for the confirmation of his daughter's death. He explains that he had gone to the hotel where she worked and couldn't imagine anyone surviving. `I'm sad that she had to die like this,' he says, `but I'm happy that her body was found. At least I could do the ceremony for her.'

Family and friends appear to be cheerful, talking quietly, smiling and drinking red soda water in the tropical heat.

(Soundbite of rooster)

XAYKAOTHAO: Their children play on the temple grounds where roosters and hens roam freely. Soon the monks will perform final rights and cremate Ganog Ohn to send her off into the spirit world. The Thai government says its DVI unit has identified and returned close to 3,000 bodies of both Thai families and foreign families, but some 800 bodies remain unclaimed. Earlier this month officials shut down its DVI unit in Phuket and have plans to reopen it in the new year but in a different location. Thai government spokesperson Surinan Dedegiva(ph).

Mr. SURINAN DEDEGIVA (Thai Government Spokesperson): The bodies itself have to be buried, but all of them ...(unintelligible). We are ready to exhume the body and to test DNA samples that we have collected. And that's going to be--I don't know, forever?

XAYKAOTHAO: Many unclaimed bodies are believed to be people from neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma. Some Burmese were undocumented, working as construction workers or seasonal laborers. Local Thai NGOs and organizations such as UNICEF and World Vision have been assisting their families. Aide workers say Burmese tsunami survivors or families of tsunami victims fear going to the Thai government to reclaim the bodies of their loved ones for fear of deportation. In Phang Nga province, this Burmese worker, who calls himself Bai(ph), shared his story.

BAI: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: He come alone from Burma and come to work here and when the tsunami came, he stay on the beach. And then the wave come and he run away and run away, but cannot run. The water is come. He's swimming. He saw many people have gone by the west and go to high mountains.

XAYKAOTHAO: Bai says he hasn't gotten any help from the Thai government, but he said he did see some Burmese families get food and water. Surinan Dedegiva says the Thai government is helping locals and foreigners as best as they can.

Mr. DEDEGIVA: Any relief, whether cash or other kind of benefit, we try to give everyone in a certain criteria at the same level. That's equality I think. But government have to have certain criteria because it's all donation money. Every buck, every cent has to be explained, even without the identities. And in certain villages, even without the land title deed, Thais or not, we have given them the best relief we could.

XAYKAOTHAO: Surinan also says Thailand's National Disaster Warning Center is ready.

Mr. DEDEGIVA: We now have probably the best warning system in the Indian Ocean for a tsunami disaster. It is quite comprehensive. It would be more upgrade and more comprehensive in the beginning of next year with all the buoy systems and the network in the Indian Ocean itself. But at the moment I think we can safely say that we are closely monitoring any earthquake that happens in the Indian Ocean or down in the South China Sea.

(Soundbite of children)

XAYKAOTHAO: Along Patong Beach in Phuket, kids are playing and the beach (unintelligible) are all taken. Tourists from Europe and Asia are back, filling up hotels. Wolfgang Meusberger is general manager of the Holiday Inn resort in Phuket. He's worked in Thailand for more than 14 years. He says Thailand has bounced back.

Mr. WOLFGANG MEUSBERGER (General Manager, Holiday Inn): The Thais are very resilient. They're forward-looking. I think their religion has really helped them in situations like this because I think if you have the belief that, you know, whatever you do good now comes back, I think it's a very strong modulator to do something good and fast.

XAYKAOTHAO: For employee Herwaren Bamuting(ph), the tsunami was shocking but she said the Holiday Inn took care of its staff.

Ms. HERWAREN BAMUTING: I heard from other hotels that didn't keep their staff salaried. But the Holiday Inn still keep everyone, even no business, the hotel they give salary to their staff. It is very fantastic, so that's why all the staff very happy when the hotel is reopening. They're waiting to show it to the customer, because they're waiting long time, nearly one year.

XAYKAOTHAO: Holiday Inn manager Meusberger says he's worried about media coverage of the anniversary.

Mr. MEUSBERGER: Are we going to see these pictures again and again? I can't see any tsunami pictures anymore. Believe me, it's just I don't want to see them anymore. It's part of our history, we have to deal with it. We have to remember it. We'll have a memory plaque here in the hotel commemorating that this has happened, but that's it. It's time to move on really, you know. It's time to move on.

XAYKAOTHAO: That sentiment is shared by many people, but not all. Therapists and social workers throughout the affected provinces say, for some, recovery will take years.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Phuket, Thailand.

INSKEEP: If you go to npr.org, you can watch a multimedia story about Thailand's recovery.

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