Broken Lives
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Two years after she left for Bangkok, Wannapa Boontang, 17, is back in the family rice paddy. The factory where she made sneakers closed this summer.
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'Don't Know What to Do'
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Now, only two years after Wannapa left her village to fulfill a dream of working in the big city, she is back home in Sai, in a raised house next to the family rice paddy, pulling on overalls and covering her face with a wide-brimmed straw hat and scarf to ward off the blazing sun and keep her complexion free of the villager's ubiquitous tan.

"I decided to go to Bangkok because we were so poor," Wannapa said, recalling how she first made the trek with an older sister when she was 15. "I was very excited," she recalls of her arrival in the Thai capital on the train from the northeast. "I was glad to see all the beautiful things in Bangkok."

After working as a housemaid, and then in a cosmetics factory, she finally found the firm making Combat sneakers. She earned about $62 a month – more with overtime – which allowed her to send cash home to her parents and still have enough left to pay her way through school. "I wanted to study," she said. "I sent myself to school in Bangkok."

Wannapa moves expertly in the rice paddy, pulling out the seedlings, trimming them and placing them in a pile for replanting. Like all village children in the northeast, she began learning the trade when she was 7 or 8. "It's not a big change, because I was born here," she said.

But she is clear about where she would rather be. "I like it in Bangkok because I was independent," she said. "I could support myself going to school and do anything I want. ... I had money when I was in Bangkok. Here I don't have money." Now her older sister has also been told her job will end, meaning no one will be working to send money back home.

"Here in the village, we don't have much to do. We only have to work in the rice fields once a year. But in Bangkok, we work every day and get paid every month."

Wannapa is not alone. In Sai, an estimated 100 people out of a total population of 435 went to Bangkok to work, leaving mostly old people and small children in the village. The majority of those migrants went to work for the Ital-Thai construction company. But with construction drying up, about 60 of those villagers have returned.

"They don't know what to do – they just stay at home," said Wichitra Chusakul, assistant manager of a group called NET (for Northeast Thailand) Foundation, which assists rural villages. "They can live because they have rice to eat. But they have no future plans."

One recent jobless returnee agreed. "In Bangkok, we had to work all the time, but we had money," said Pan Rewthong, 45, a laid-off construction worker who spends afternoons drinking beer and sitting in the shade with other, jobless friends. "Here, we have a more comfortable life – but we don't have any money."

And Sai is not unique. There are 2,000 such villages in Surin province, and although there are no precise surveys, Wichitra said, "every village sends their people to Bangkok to work, so they all have the same problem."

The influx of returning migrants also brings with it a host of new problems and urban pathologies previously unknown, or at least rare, in these remote villages. There is concern that more people living in crowded conditions is leading to increased tension in families – more spousal abuse, more child abuse. Crime is on the rise. And experts worry about a new spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.

"There's been a massive return of people to rural areas who had been living in cities," said Robert Bennoun, a UNICEF official who is also an adviser to the U.N. program on HIV/AIDS. "The hospitals are filling up. ... They're going at a time when the communities are already wiped out by the economic crisis. People are going back with HIV at a time when the health services are particularly stretched."

Dej Boonyong, 40, and her family work in the rice fields of Sai after she and her husband lost their jobs in Bangkok.
In Sai, they haven't seen the problems yet – but residents say they are worried. "If it rains well, and people keep working, it will be okay," said Thanakorn Jantamon, 32, a carpenter on an Ital-Thai construction site who also returned to the village this summer. "But if not, the unemployment rate in the village will increase and we will get crime."

There have already been incidents in neighboring villages, he said. Motorbikes stolen. Poultry pilfered. Even water buffalo have disappeared from fields. "I hear of things being stolen in other villages," he said. "I think it's because of the crisis bringing people back who are unemployed."

"Go back to your village!" That has become the mantra of Southeast Asian governments grappling with their worst economic downturn in decades. In Indonesia this year, when thousands of job-seekers flooded into the capital, Jakarta, for the annual village-to-city migration after the Muslim Idul Fitri holidays, they were met with a harsh reception: The Jakarta governor, Sutiyoso, launched a crackdown called Operation Yustista to clear the city of migrants. Police at bus stations checked identity cards of new arrivals, and those without Jakarta addresses were frog-marched back onto buses.

The plight of Indonesia's rural migrants was even summed up in a popular folk song, the title of which translates: "No One Told You To Come To Jakarta."

Thailand has been less firm, but the message has been the same.

During a recent sit-in by textile workers on the outskirts of Bangkok, a labor department official showed up in a necktie and starched white shirt to explain to thousands of laid-off workers, most of them female, why they should leave Bangkok once they collected their severance pay.

"I'm trying to solve the problem by having them get back to the village, and the local governments will support them there," said the official, Deputy Labor Minister Prakob Sangtoh. "They can raise fish in fish ponds to sell and to eat."

But many of the workers who heard the labor official's plea were unimpressed, saying that for them, village life offered hardly any choice at all.

"It's hard to go back and do the same thing because I've forgotten all the skills," said Noi Sangraksa, 27.

"We have to have money to spend," said Boontuen Phosuwan. "We can't avoid spending money. Now all the unemployed people are being told to sell things [in the villages]. But if we are all selling things, who will there be to buy them?"

Advocates for Thailand's poor and newly unemployed have suggested the government has an ulterior motive in its strategy of asking the unemployed to return to their villages: to prevent the buildup in the capital of a critical mass of unemployed.

"The recent government policies to help the poor, such as loans for the unemployed, [are] only to delay the social unrest," said Suriya Thongnuead, an adviser to the Forum of the Poor, an advocacy group. "It doesn't help solving the real problem of poverty among the majority. I can't see any way out for the unemployed workers who go back to die in the village."

For many unemployed – especially those who have been living in the city for years, including single women with children, returning to the village is hardly an option. Boontuen Phosuwan, at age 40, had been working at the Thai Melon textile company for 17 years; her sister, Samang, 42, has spent 24 years at the same company. For them, home is not a faraway village in the northeast, but the factory and the dormitory behind it. Family is as much the colleagues on the assembly line as the parents and siblings they left behind long ago.

"I'm still shocked now," said Boontuen, who had joined the sit-in at the factory demanding the payment of back wages and severance pay. "But I still have to get back home to spend some time thinking.

"It's hard to get a job," she said. "I don't have much education. Nobody will take me. I don't feel very well at all. My older sister was working here too, and another brother and sister have all lost their jobs."

"This is all I know – weaving cloth," she said. "We started doing it by hand. And then the machines came, and we did it by machine. This is the only thing we know."

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© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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