Supplies needed, relief given. Hardship in these parts is deeply ingrained in the farming community, scattered in what appears to be dry barren land to any bubbly urban-born selfie-addicted Thai. Though the farmers seem oblivious to such burden. I’ve seen my fair share of rural communities in Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia to know the land is far from being a stark landscape in this northeastern Maha Sarakham province. The land, endures months without rain, and even then very few, through irrigation and agricultural lore, farmers are able to harvest rice twice a year.
The evening breeze was growing cooler, and the strong smell of buffaloes and arid hay was reducing. The first day, with the fading sunlight, proved to be wondrous. I had the chance to speak to more villagers than I had initially anticipated.
Before I left the Kurang Village, I prompted my guide, Nat, to a nearby house, that also serves as a grocery shop of some sort. There wasn’t much, not like the stores one can easily find in Bangkok where they were congested with merchandise of all color and size. This store sells what they truly needed for the day or month. Toiletries, a bit of stationary, foodstuff, household goods, mineral water, milk, bread, sugar, flour, coffee, cheap local brew and whiskey. Behind the store, I saw a mattress on the floor, a small kitchen and a clean lavatory with basic shower facility.
I was introduced to Aumnui, the temporary owner, a 50-year-old woman behind a table, armed with a calculator, stacks of scribbled paper and notes of 20 baht on the desk. She has two children, in their mid and late 20s, and both working in Bangkok. Nodding, she glanced at the tin of soda that Nat wanted to purchase, while checking her loose ledger which was marked in Thai alphabets and numbers.
“You have a lot of work krub?” I asked Aumnui, pointing at her paperwork, as Nat simultaneously translated.
“Some people owe this shop.” She said. Her fingers tapped at some Thai scribble and not missing the beat, continued counting the notes.
At Nat’s request, for her to elaborate the concept to the visiting Malaysian, Aumnui describes the fundamental of the credit system of the village, for basic goods and rations, and transactions. Villagers are allowed credit, thus able to purchase what they need in the store without the use of cash. Children have access to the credits, signing up under their parent’s name. A profitable venture, as claimed by Aumnui, as she further explains that she makes between 10,000-15,000 baht per month (about US$300-450). In fact, according to others who stood watching us talk, the system is regularly monitored by a committee of 11 villagers. Debts to the store are paid whenever possible, and before the year ends. Adults have an opportunity to manage the community store, thus an average rotation of 8 months per villager. 40% of the monthly profits go to the those who manage the store.
The micro credit project in Kurang was first initiated 12 years ago, during the early years of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was popular amongst rural folks of northern Thailand, and he was removed by a military coup in 2006. Even without him as PM, years later, Thaksin’s rural policies live on. Most of the villagers felt that Thaksin was bridging the gap between the poor and rich, and pushing somewhat for a universal access to their rights. His opponents, mainly the middle and upper class in Bangkok, believed he was bribing the poor with opportunities in healthcare, education and improved income.
“Do you think this credit scheme works for the benefit of your village?” I asked.
“Yes ka. It has been working for more than 10 years.” She said, still partly absorbed with her baht-counting chore, what appeared to be the daily sale collection.
“Do you think your government did a good or bad job?” My question managed to grab her attention.
She stopped at her work, looked up and smiled. “They do good.”
I thanked her for her time and waved at the half a dozen villagers I met. Hospitality in this village was sincere, similar to what I found in the southern villages and small towns of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Despite the hardship and being indiscriminately branded of ‘not being up to standard’ with urbanized “educated” middle-classed Thais, the villagers of Kurang are incredibly resilient, spirited and knowledgeable. Hardship from the harsh environment of Maha Sarakham has tempered their people with a strong community vigor, and even without Bangkok’s luxuries, the villagers seem to grow stronger with their sense of solidarity.