By Pattama Vilailert
With a series of COVID-19 lockdowns, many workers in Bangkok and other major business cities like Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Samut Prakarn flocked to their hometowns. They are forced to seek ways to begin their new lives and rationalise how to live sustainably in the long term.
In Thailand, it is common to see laypeople giving alms to monks in the morning all over the country as part of merit-making before starting their day. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some monks have reversed roles in merit-making.
At Wat Ban Tha Khoi Nang, Phramaha Hansa Dhammahaso, abbot and director of the International Buddhist Studies College (IBSC), Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya (University) translates timeless teachings of the Buddha into his community development work of ‘Peace Village’ (Khok Nong Na).
“Peace Village comes from four kinds of Buddha teachings on developments of physical, social, mental and intellectual (aspects) and I have turned them into our strategies to address ongoing problems”, Phramaha Hansa told IDN. “The first issue in the village is poverty (and) we need to create sustainable occupations (to address it). If people are still poor, how can we develop peace in the village?” he asks. “So, I apply the Sufficient Economy of King Rama IX’s ideology to develop Khok Nong Na model”.
The late King Bhumibol (Rama IX) introduced the concept of ‘Sufficiency Economics’ when Thailand faced a severe economic downturn in the late 1990s. There are three pillars underlining this economic model—moderation, reasonableness and self-immunity. All three are based on Buddhist philosophy. According to His Majesty’s official philosophy self-immunity outlines four areas that everybody should strive to achieve including: Immunity to changes in material circumstance, Immunity to social changes, Immunity to environmental changes and immunity to cultural changes.
In explaining the application of these Buddhist teachings to his village, Phramaha Hansa explains that the environment is important. “Many people tried to corrupt the land, so I told them to follow the 5 precepts (Panchasila), stressing on the 2nd precept: not to steal nor cheat, and eventually it worked out”, he says happily. “Lastly, villagers’ well-being (is also important because) old people in the village have a lot of health problems, thus I brought my health expert students from Bangkok to train them on how to take care of themselves. Also, in the misery time of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have helped a lot of Sisaket and adjacent province returnees to settle in their hometowns.”
The Bank of Thailand revealed that since the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic (from February-April 2020), 2 million workers moved in and out of cities. In the latter part of the year 2020 over 200,000 people per month were on the move. Most of them are aged 21-60 years (80%) and more than half are low-income people.
The laid-off workers migrating out of Bangkok and surrounding provinces like the main tourist cities such as Phuket and Chaing Mai were significant. The workers were unable to bear the cost of living in large cities and decided to return to their hometowns.
Bauchai, a migrant worker originally from Ban Tha Khoi Nang, Sisaket shares the same fate. Before the outbreak, she used to live in the vicinity of Bangkok and worked as a seamstress in a small factory for over 30 years. “In February 2020, during the COVID-19 first wave, I saw the rising number of infected people, and later in April, it got worse, so I planned to move back to Sisaket permanently. At the end of 2020, I settled myself in Ban Tha Khoi Nang, my hometown”, she told IDN.
In the first and the second waves of the outbreak (around February 2020-January 2021), there were enough hospital beds to cater to COVID-19 cases. As for the third wave from April-June 2021, community and city hospitals could only provide direct medical care and supervision to COVID-19 patients.
However, from late July to the middle of August 2021, the number of cases had continuously hiked from 15,000 to 22,000 a day. According to the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), the highest infected cases were clustered in Bangkok and major business cities like Samut Sakhon, Chon Buri and Samut Prakarn. When the number of cases soared, the incident of bed scarcity happened in Bangkok and the main cities. The inflected people had to go back to their hometowns for treatment and isolation.
“In Ban Tha Khoi Nang, Sisaket, from the middle of July to August 2021, sons and daughters of Sisaket’s residents wanted to come back to the village, I reminded them to isolate themselves in our forest temple. Also, I together with the director of the hospital, set up field hospitals: the first hospital catered to 35 people while the second one could take care of 100 people,” explained Phramaha Hansa.
“People that knew about this activity called me from Samut Sakhon, Ayutthaya, Samut Prakran and other provinces to ask if they could come for isolation and treatment here. I told them to do so and, in some cases, I sent the van to pick them up. Thus, so far I had helped around 1,400 people.”
Aside from setting up field hospitals, Phramaha Hansa was also a focal point for district and public health authorities to communicate with villagers and those that got infected. He was live on Facebook with the concerned authorities to inform people on ongoing treatment accessibility, isolation protocol and others.
Treatment and isolation are not the only contributions of Phramaha Hansa, “besides giving them food and water for 2 months, we have Khok Nong Na where they can learn about farming, growing organic vegetables and helping one another and in the long run, they can live sustainably”. He also added that even though, the isolation and treatment ended, the farming in Khok Nong Na is still going on.
The villagers’ children who work in Bangkok and want to come back home in the future have shown interest in learning about farming in Khok Nong Na. Phramaha Hansa keeps inspiring the villagers’ children through his Facebook and Line application. From this month, some of them will come back and learn farming for them to live a sustainable life in the long term as COVID-19 has taught them the impermanence of life—a basic component of Buddhist—and self-immunity philosophy is designed to cushion its negative impacts.
Malinee, a former Tha Khoi Nang village head has joined in several activities initiated by Phramaha Hansa. “Venerable’s works allowed me to work closely with villagers, sub-district and district authorities as such I was able to gain cooperation from them all. Phramaha Hansa addressed the root cause of the village’s problem by applying sufficient economic philosophy. Khok Nong Na reduces expenses while increasing household income. His Peace Park also brings villagers to meditate from 5-6 p.m. every day, from there, villagers learn to live together harmoniously,” she told IDN.
The Thailand’s local development foundation suggests that the relocation to hometown rarely affects food security in the household because people could access natural resources and agricultural products. However, 76% of Thai agricultural households have relied on non-farm income. The wave of urban migrant workers returning to villages during the COVID-19 pandemic is also an opportunity to create change in the agricultural sector, the backbone of Thailand’s economy and lifestyle.
Khok Nong Na that PhramahaHansa Dhammahaso is implementing has set two foundations for urban migrant workers and villagers to live sustainably to maintain physical needs together with fulfilling the mind with Dhamma (Buddhist teachings). His model reflects pragmatic application of spiritual teachings to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs).
“Dhamma does not exist anywhere else; it is in paddy fields and farms. Wherever we decide to do farming, Dhamma appears and reveals for us to learn. Thus, we come to realize that our body composes of soil, water, fire and wind elements,” argues Phramaha Hansa. “While working on the farms, we must be mindful and concentrate on what we are doing including seeking ways to manage land for living (sustainably) even though it is hard, we have to be patient”.
The energetic monk, who speaks fluent English and is a well-known Buddhist scholar in Thailand, acknowledge that the village farmers may not know Dhamma terminologies that well. “Dhamma (law of nature) exists (everywhere) and it includes (the practice of) patience, mindfulness, wisdom, concentration and endeavours,” says Phramaha Hansa Dhammahaso.