Life Continues at Bon Kai

January 2009

Lek dusts off some weed overgrowing on a large plaque attached to one of the row houses’ wall. It bears the name of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist Prime Minister who came here during their opening day ceremony some years ago.

“He was here,” whispers Lek as he proudly display the worn out chrome plaque. The controversial Prime Minister now lives in exile; he is facing a 2 years prison terms on corruption charges.

In the past 3 years, Thailand has used up 5 Prime Ministers. The first in line was Thaksin himself, then came a military general, a cooking show host, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, and an Oxford man who - as of today, January 28, 2009 - is still serving his term. The old financial world and Wall Street have collapsed; and America - for the first time in its history – elected a black man as President.

Many things have changes in the global political and economic arena, but the community organizations – operating in the underground trenches and alleyways of rundown ghettos – remain the same. While the formal corporate world is screaming socialism; begging the state for more cash and welfare handouts, the informal grassroots organizations are actually getting stronger and more independent. It is the process of evolution in the literal sense.

Three years ago, uncle Sungwan – Bon Kai’s old commandente – was forced to retired to the countryside due to a serious injury; but he still remains active today in advising his old comrades here. The various factions within the community – the rental houses owners - that had accused uncle Sangwan of violating planning codes are now able to walk the same alleyway as those who had once supported uncle Sangwan. Lek, who was Sunwan’s protege, is now looking over the cooperative’s day to day activities.

“Uncle Sungwan went to jail for several months; he made atonement for our sins,” says Lek. “It’s not about the setback code; it’s all about the politics here, you know. It’s about this group of people who owned 4 large rental houses; they stand to lose if the people here get together and re-plan the entire community. But now we have taken care of these various interest groups in the community so we can continue with our future. There are no more gang shooting, betrayal, and night raid by the police.”

Lek walks me to the construction site where new concrete-block Row Houses are emerging against the back drop of the old Housing Authority flats. There is a sense of hope and a new beginning for the people here; there are smiles on people’s faces as their kids run wild in the new central playground.

Several families have opened small retail shops on the first floor of their Row Houses. Some families purchased several coin laundry machines and placed them in front of their shops for public uses. Older folks sit in front of their houses listening to portable radios.

Unlike the first few prototypes that were built years ago during the first phase of the construction, the new generation of row houses has a long continuous balcony – almost like a walkway – linking the entire building together. “They could even open small shops on the second floor if they like,” says Lek. “I think people are making a few changes to the design of the row house in response to their actual needs and lifestyle.”

“So the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI) still provides their architect’s time?” I ask

“Yeah, if we really nag them; and we did! Usually they expect us to be the one doing all the work during the construction phase. But when we tell them about the new design; the continuous 2nd level balcony, they immediately embraced the idea,” he says.

Today, the whole community – including some old rival gang members - are united into what is called the Bon Kai Cooperative, Inc. The era of internal rivalry is over. Now the cooperative has its own development committee consisting of:

1. Members of the cooperative: 11 person
2. Members of the general community: 25 person
3. Head of various groups: 8 person
4. Legal and engineering advisors: 2 person

The development committee has divided the construction into 3 phases. The first phase would oversee the construction of 72 houses. The second phase, 29 houses, and the third phase, 109 houses. They are already finishing the last phase.

Each house sits on a footprint of 3.5 x 7 meters; 3 stories high and cost 200,000 baht. CODI has given the cooperative the housing loan with 1% interest rate to supplement the 2.5 million baht worth of the cooperative’s own saving. The cooperative then lends out the money at a rate of 4% per year so that they could cover the overhead cost of management and coordination. Each family pays back 1,200 baht per month over a period of 15 years. Their monthly household income ranges from 5,000 to 15,000 baht.

There is a special committee consisting of experts on facility construction and management; they oversee the construction and the procurement of materials of plumbing lines, septic tanks, toilets, and sanitation facilities. Each household has its own septic tanks underneath the unit within the row house. There is also a committee on electrical work; they oversee all the electrical wiring and equipments. It is cheaper to buy equipment in bulks, and today we can see that most houses have air-conditioning and a TV in their living rooms.

There is no more fear on the threat of eviction since the cooperative now lease the land directly from the Bureau of Crown Property for a mere 4.75 baht per meter square. The market rate now runs at 125,000 baht per meter square in the same area.

Several construction workers – hired by the cooperative – are listening to a portable radio. The noon hour news lady reports:

The Human Rights commission of Thailand strongly disagreed with the attempts by various business groups that are lobbying to end the pollution control law in Rarong’s industrial area. A coalition of people suffering from exposure to petro-chemical pollutants suggested that…

Somsri, one of the community leaders, is taking her garbage out to the dump. She has been instrumental in organizing the folks here since the fire. Not only is she in charge of the new housing construction, but she also oversees other issues such as drugs, prostitution, and gangs.

“We try to ask the folks here about what they want to see in this community after they’re done with the houses, the playground, and the new school. We want people to share their vision about our new community; already there is a renewed sense of trust and comradeship within Bon Kai,” says Somsri as she continues with her errands.

Lek says that the new generation of youngsters here are not so socially concerned. “They are not like uncle Sungwan, you know. They are not fighting for changes. They just like to have fun. They do parties - late at night - and come home to sing Karaoke; it’s really annoying,” he shakes his head.