/ 26 December 2009

Asia marks tsunami’s fifth anniversary with prayers

Thousands of saffron-robed Thai monks chanted and prayed for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Saturday as Asia marked the fifth anniversary of one of history’s worst natural disasters.

The gathering of monks in Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast that lost nearly half its 5 000 people, was one of hundreds of solemn events across Asia in memory of the towering waves that crashed ashore with little warning on December 26, 2004, killing 226 000 people in 13 countries.

”All souls from all nationalities, wherever you are now, please receive the prayers the monks are saying for you,” said Kularb Pliamyai, who lost 10 family members in Ban Nam Khem.

In Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, survivors gathered in neighbourhood mosques or homes on the eve of the anniversary to remember those killed by the wall of water as high as 30m triggered by an undersea earthquake off the island of Sumatra.

Indonesia was the worst hit with the number of dead and missing over 166 000. Massive reconstruction aid in Banda Aceh has rebuilt a new city on top of the ruins, and many survivors are only now putting memories of the waves behind them.

”The psychology of the Acehnese people is starting to recover after five years,” said Eva Susanti, who lost 125 members of her extended family in the Banda Aceh area.

Some locals such as Taufik Rahmat say they have moved on, helped along by new homes in the Banda Aceh region following one of the largest foreign fund-raising exercises. But still pockets of people in his village remain homeless.

”Not all elements have been fulfilled, I think about 80% to 90% of the people still don’t have proper housing,” he said.

Frightened of the sea
Thailand’s Ban Nam Khem village is a shadow of its former self. Its once-thriving centre of dense waterfront stores, restaurants and wooden homes is gone, replaced with souvenir shops, a wave-shaped monument and a small building filled with photographs of the tsunami recovery effort.

Many former residents are now too frightened of the sea to rebuild close to the water.

”I still feel bad about what happened. People from all over the world were killed here. It’s their misfortune,” Kularb said.

In Thailand, 5 398 people were killed, including several thousand foreign tourists, when the waves swamped six coastal provinces, turning some of the world’s most beautiful beaches into mass graves. Many are still missing.

In Patong, a Thai beach resort village bustling with tourists, local artists performed traditional Thai songs and Buddhist monks chanted as tourists and locals gathered in a pavilion to look at photographs of the tsunami’s damage. A candlelight vigil was planned for evening.

”We come and stay here because we are alive,” said Ruschitschka Adolf, a 73-year-old German who survived the tsunami, as his wife Katherina waded into Patong’s turquoise waters to lay white roses in the waves in memory of the dead.

Almost all of those killed were vacationing on or around the southern island of Phuket, a region that had contributed as much as 40% of Thailand’s annual tourism income.

Aid drying up
Tsunami aid efforts have mostly finished, said Patrick Fuller, Tsunami Communications Coordinator at the Red Cross.

”A lot of the physical reconstruction has ended. There are some major infrastructure projects that are still going on. There are some road projects, longer term projects. But all the housing projects are pretty much wrapped up,” he said.

The Red Cross built 51 000 houses over the past five years, mostly in the Maldives and Indonesia.

But locals say they need more than new buildings, clean-water plants and other infrastructure.

”The economy has not recovered,” said Rotjana Phraesrithong, who is in charge of the Baan Tharn Namchai Orphanage, opened in 2006 for 35 children who lost parents in the tsunami.

Dozens of small hotels and resorts are up for sale in Thailand’s Phang Nga province north of Phuket whose forested coastline includes Ban Nam Khem and the serene 19km Khao Lak beach, two of Thailand’s worst tsunami-hit areas.

”More than 100 of these small hotels and retail tour operators are looking to sell their operations because they can’t obtain loans from banks to keep going,” said Krit Srifa, president of the Phang Nga Tourism Association.

”Many small operators are still in debt after renovations since the tsunami and many just haven’t recovered financially.”

On Khao Lak beach, where the tsunami killed more than 3 000 people, there’s little physical evidence of it aside from occasional ”Tsunami Hazard Zone” signs and colour-coded evacuation maps.

A symbol of the catastrophe, the Sofitel Magic Lagoon where more than 300 guests and staff died, re-opened last month as the 298-room JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa.

In Patong, tourism is down but few blame the tsunami.

”The only time people seem to talk about the tsunami is in December during the anniversary,” said Pattahanant Ketkaew, a 27-year-old manager at Phuket2Go tours near Patong beach. ”Tourism is off but that’s because of the global economy.” – Reuters