A pitiful waste: B23m community centre becomes a rotting carcass
PHUKET: The disastrous Asian Tsunami of December 26, 2004, that smashed into Phuket, killing at least 800 people and damaging structures all along the west coast of the island, was followed by an outburst of charitable activity from around the world.
Friday 17 August 2012, 03:03PM
One less obvious outcome of the tsunami was the psychological damage caused to those who lost their families, their homes or their livelihoods. In some cases, entire communities were affected.
To address this, the major charity Hilfswerk Austria and the Austrian Government put up B23 million to build a central place that would help a local community come together and recover from the disaster.
The year after the tsunami, work began on the Austria-Phuket Community Centre near the bridge in Koh Sirae.
A year or so later, on December 15, 2006, just under two years after the disaster, the centre was opened by Abhisit Vejjajiva, then chairman of the Democrat Party, and Austrian Ambassador to Thailand Arno Riedel.
Guests of honour included Anchalee Vanich Thephabutra, who at that time was president of the Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation (OrBorJor); Dr Heidi Burkhart, Head of Hilfswerk Austria; and Austrian Commercial Counsellor Dr Oskar Andesner.
At a glittering gala dinner later, a crystal and pearl ornament designed and donated by Swarowski was auctioned for B122,500 to add to funds for running the centre.
The Austria-Phuket Community Centre had four sections: a library in the basement; on the first floor was a child care centre and nursery, where children could be looked after while their parents worked; a skills and vocational training centre; and a health centre.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the centre is a mouldering carcass.
The books have all gone, and so has all the other equipment installed. Thieves have ripped out the power cables. Even the doors have been stolen. The basement floods knee-deep, and at night the place is the haunt of drug abusers.
Local people say its decline began almost as soon as it opened.
On April 21 this year the fire brigade were called to the Centre. There they spent an hour putting out a fire on the main floor of the building. Whoever started it had added a wooden table to the flames, to keep the fire burning brightly.
Days later, security guards found that someone had tried unsuccessfully to start another fire, but failed.
On May 4 firefighters were once more called to deal with a blaze in the toilets at the centre. Again, they spent an hour putting out the flames. Police theorised it was the work of drug addicts.
Surveying the damage, a police officer said, “I think they burned and damaged the centre for fun. We found some other related items, including empty cigarette packets, glue and paint thinner cans. We also have reports from local people that there are drug users who visit the centre.
“It is very lucky that no one was hurt.”
Since then, someone has smashed all of the toilets and basins in the building.
The Austria-Phuket Community Centre, built as a beacon of hope for the local community, is now a rotting little hell, a hangout of drug abusers. One group is trying to make the best of this bad situation: The Smiling Children’s Club, which aims to help keep children away from involvement in the drugs and violence so prevalent in Koh Sirae.
The club meets every Saturday afternoon at the centre. It’s popular, regularly attracting 30 to 40 children, who come for the art, guitar and English lessons provided by the four volunteer teachers.
Twelve-year-old Song, one of the children who comes to club sessions, loves it. “When I heard that this group came to the Austria-Phuket Community Center, I went straight away. There are free art and music classes. I come every weekend!”
The club’s founder, who asked not to be named, explains, “I think the centre can be useful if it is fixed. The club has been going for three months and I would regret it very much if we could not use the centre any more.
"I don’t understand why such a large facility as the Austria-Phuket Community Centre could have been left to decay for so long.”
The current president of the OrBorJor, Paiboon Upatising, who inherited responsibility for the centre after beating Mrs Anchalee in elections four years ago, says, “The Austria-Phuket Community Centre was built in a hurry.” He explains that the design of the centre is not appropriate, and describes it as “not as useful as it should be”.
“I made repairs to the place before the arson attempts. But now there is no quick way to fix it up.
“I still allow some groups to do activities there. But I would prefer them to use the Rang Tukkae cultural centre because it is more suitable for children’s activities.
“But now that various clubs want to use it, I have some plan for improvements. Possibly, for a start, it could be used as an annex for the local school, which would give the school more room for students to study in. But first the building would have to be repaired to make it suitable for this.”
“However, any plans for the centre will require consultation with Hilfswerk and the Austria embassy.”
Hilfswerk’s Dr Burkhart could not be reached for comment for this story, but Gustav Gressel, successor to Dr Oskar Andesner at the Austrian embassy in Bangkok, was surprised to hear about the centre’s deterioration.
He said, “It was never meant to be a permanent responsibility [of the Austrian government]. We just wanted to help quickly [after the tsunami].”
He added, “Thailand is not a developing country where you have to follow through [with additional support lasting years].”
Asked what she thought of the current state of the centre, Mrs Anchalee, toppled from the presidency of the OrBorJor two years after the centre was completed, said, “I think it is the duty of present OrBorJor [to look after it]. If someone can come up with a plan for it, I think the centre can still be useful.”