Monday, December 26, 2011

Came the floods, came the people. We salute the good samaritans of Thai society

At first, it was not easy for us to pick our "Person of the Year" for 2011, but a real white knight, or rather white knights, emerged when we looked back at the recent flood crisis.
Volunteers and staff from Unilever Thailand pack relief bags at the Thai-Japanese stadium in Din Daeng. THITI WANNAMONTHA
As the unprecedented floods spread far and wide across the lower northern and Central Plains provinces, including parts of Bangkok, bewildered and grief-stricken citizens looked to the authorities for help as their homes, possessions and livelihoods vanished amid swirling, filthy waters. That help was often inefficient and slow, and sometimes non-existent.
Enter the white knights. Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life flocked to offer their help to flood victims and let them know they were not alone.
In numerous stirring scenes of compassion, crowds of people gathered to fill sandbags for floodwalls while a vast army of citizens packed untold numbers of bags with relief supplies, and showing amazing stamina in braving the floods day in and day out to distribute food and other essentials to the flood victims. In a break from the tradition of choosing one person, we select them _ The Volunteers, Jit Arsa _ as the Bangkok Post's "Person of the Year 2011".
After the government opened its Flood Relief Operations Command at Don Mueang airport on Oct 8 and Thammasat University opened its Rangsit Campus as an evacuation centre a day later, the phenomenonal volunteer spirit exploded into action.
People persuaded parents, children, friends, colleagues and anyone with time to spare, whether Thai or foreigner, to volunteer to help flood victims and evacuees. The good samaritan spirit spread to many flood relief centres wherever they could be set up.
Civic-minded businesses, and there were many of them, turned over their staff and premises to help through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) scheme.
When the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration wanted volunteers to build a 6km sandbag dyke along Khlong Hok Wa Sai Lang in Sai Mai district to hold back northern runoff from the Rangsit area, many private companies mobilised their staff.
Teens from schools and universities flocked to Suvarnabhumi Airport to pack sandbags. Others gathered at Don Mueang Airport to join several military units packing relief bags and making effective micro-organism (EM) balls to treat stagnant water.
These scenes were witnessed all over the city and surrounding provinces.
Even flood victims, helpless to help themselves, turned to helping others.
Many others worked behind the scenes, using social networks like websites, Facebook, Twitter and so on to send out vital information, especially cries for assistance from flood victims or people living in threatened areas.
They played a key role in organising volunteers _ where, when and how. Because of them, the volunteer army was able to work more efficiently.
Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, vice-rector for student affairs at Thammasat University, said the Thai volunteer spirit was last seen in such force seven years ago in the Boxing Day tsunami.
In the wake of that catastrophe, vast numbers of volunteers gave unstintingly of their time and resources.
Although the death toll from the tsunami in Thailand soared above 5,000, the physical effects were limited to the six Andaman provinces. This year's flood crisis, while much less deadly in terms of loss of life, was more geographically widespread. It hit 28 provinces, including in and around Bangkok. Consequently, the role of volunteers was much greater.
"The volunteer spirit that we see in each crisis is an asset in our society," Dr Prinya says.
"So don't let it be only a social current that fades after each crisis ends.
"We can keep up the volunteer spirit even during ordinary times, We can offer acts of kindness to people around us, such as to our family members and colleagues."
Dr Prinya also suggested that the volunteer spirit can be promoted regularly via the education system and through public and corporate affairs.
During times of crisis, Thai society is packed with kindness and generosity, said Poramate Minsiri, founder of the website, a voluntary outlet for flood-related information.
He said the site has also become an online community for volunteers to seek where and how they can support or help others, he said.
Mr Poramate believes Thais will continue to show this benevolent spirit after the floodwaters have receded and life returns to normal.
Samchai Sresant, deputy director of academic and research affairs at the Graduate Volunteer Centre, Thammasat University, said it was not surprising to see the outpouring of volunteerism during the floods as the spirit is embedded in most people.
He said this kind of spirit can be instilled in people from a young age. So the value of volunteering should be taught in schools.
Tassana Jaichumchuen, a lecturer in the Psychology Department at Kasetsart University's Faculty of Social Science, said he it was great to witness the spirit of kindness and cooperation during the crisis.
Thais already have this spirit within them and are ready to express it when it needed, he said.
"They came with the desire to help others and society," he said.
Thais are often easily alarmed but quick to forget.
So in order to keep the spirit of the volunteerism alive when the situation returns to normal, benevolence must be regularly stimulated and taught to people, especially the young, Mr Tassana said.
With politics still in turmoil, the outpouring of kindness and generosity we have witnessed during the crisis affirms Thai society's inner strength that can be counted on.
The Volunteers are the pride of the country.