Where charity flows freely

When the government is slow to respond to a flood, the public steps in

In late August and into early September, flash floods ravaged the rural Northeast of Thailand.

The floods hit some of the poorest provinces, such as Ubon Ratchathani, Yasothon, Kalasin and Roi Et.

Scores drowned. Villages went underwater, crops were ruined, villagers starved. It happened so quickly, everybody was caught off guard. This includes the government, which did respond, although in a way perceived by the general public as sporadic. We need to try to forgive the government, because the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, even in emergencies.

For the millions stranded and affected by those floods, they were pretty much on their own. What they needed was a superhero, and how likely was that to happen here in the real world?

And yet that is exactly what happened. He came in the form of Bin Bunleurit, and what he did was astounding.

Bin is a former TV and movie heartthrob. In the 1990s and oughts he was ubiquitous, a good-looking guy with a wholesome image -- the perfect leading man. He had a twin brother, too, nicknamed Tide, who acted as well, but it was Bin who made all the Thai girls of two decades ago swoon.

I met Bin in 2004 and in fact spent a week with him in Hollywood. He starred in a legendary Thai movie called Bang Rajan. It was a huge success locally, about a famous battle against Burmese invaders in 1767. The bloody, no-holds-barred action flick was picked up by Oliver Stone and got an American release in 2004. Besides writing the subtitles for the film, I was the MC for opening night at ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood, which is where Bin's and my paths crossed.

Not long after that, he and his brother started spending more time with Ruam Katanyu, a volunteer rescue foundation.

You may know Ruam Katanyu as the home of the mad drivers who blast their horns and flash disco lights at you as they try to ram their way through traffic to get to the scene of an accident. I have some reservations about their methods, and I do believe some of their drivers pose a road safety hazard -- but I guess the ends justify the means. If I were lying bloodied and injured on the side of the road, I'd want a crazy racing driver getting me to safety too.

Bin became the face of Ruam Katanyu, featuring in the news for that work more than as an actor.

And so when the flash floods came in September, Bin did something quite extraordinary.

He arranged a quick press conference. "This is my bank account," he said. "I'm putting 1 million baht into it today. It's gonna go directly to flood victims to help them during this time, and then to help build their lives."

He made it very clear: "The money goes straight to victims -- no middle men, no organisations. Is there anybody else who can help? It doesn't matter how big or small. Let's make merit by helping these villagers." That was it. End of press conference.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing. In a single night, 27 million baht was transferred into Bin's bank account.

Day by day, that number grew. Soon it topped 100 million baht, right around the time a slightly testy Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was chiding reporters who were questioning him about what the government was doing to alleviate the situation. Donations needed to go through an application process, the prime minister explained. The government couldn't just hand out money willy-nilly.

The prime minister was right. There is a bureaucracy involved in doling out cash handouts for good reasons. The problem, for the prime minister, was Bin. While the prime minister tried to explain how the government would help -- eventually -- Bin was out there wading through the water, handing out cash.

In four weeks, Bin had a total of 422 million baht sitting in his bank account. That's about 14 million American bucks. By the stage the waters had receded, on Oct 2, sporting a beard and looking swarthy, Bin held another press conference to close the campaign.

Last Tuesday I spoke to Tide Bunleurit, Bin's identical twin who co-ordinated the rescue effort along with his brother.

I wanted to know who were the donors of this massive figure. He said they were regular folk and they numbered in the "hundreds of thousands".

"The vast majority were donations of 500-1,000 baht," Tide said. "People started taking up collections in their workplaces and among friends. People would chip in 100 baht or 500 baht. We had donations as low as 20 baht and as high as 100,000, but most were a couple of hundred."

How incredible to think this was possible thanks to the generous hearts of Thais around the country, without any well-constructed marketing campaign featuring ads tugging at the heartstrings.

Have you noticed how the Thai economy has been lately? Things are bleak. People don't have money to spend. And still, Thais got together and dumped 422 million baht into an account to help stricken villagers.

It would be an interesting piece of research to study the motivation behind this random but massive donation. Thais are used to historically ineffectual governments over the past few decades. Was that the reason -- a case of taking matters into their own hands? Or maybe it's just that Thais are inherently kind people, always willing to help out in a crisis.

Bin says he is now getting down to the work of doling out 5,000 baht per victim of the floods in those four provinces. He has also earmarked funds to repair flood-affected schools, hospitals and temples.

If there were a national election this week and Bin ran for office, he would win hands-down regardless of party or platform.

And the government effort?

Do me a favour. Over the next few days, ask your closest Thai friends or workmates how they felt about the government's flood rescue efforts. I'm not saying a thing about how they will react. And then, ask them what they think about Bin.

But this column is not written to criticise the government. It is to celebrate the deep generosity of the average Thai person who is neither rich nor financially savvy.

So the next time you hear somebody making disparaging remarks about Thais, slap your hand on the table, throw down your swizzle stick and simply say: "Four-hundred twenty-two million baht." You can explain the rest.

Some of my more vocal critics will immediately strike me down with the allegation that this very column is a library of gripes and groans. Yes, dear reader, it's true: This column is my therapy. By writing it every week, I get to release all that pent-up sound and fury that swirls inside of me. But it is all with deep respect. I love this country, and its wonderful people, and if you don't think they are wonderful, just have a look at what happened in those flood-affected weeks in September.

The only downside to all this warm and fuzzy feeling is over at Government House. Make no mistake: they're embarrassed. The government didn't know how to act quickly in a crisis. Bin showed them how. He also, unfortunately, showed them up.