'Pantries of sharing' mustn't let dark side win
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'Pantries of sharing' mustn't let dark side win

The "pantries of sharing" project -- a small charity scheme involving those who have more leaving behind food and other necessities for anyone who may need an item or two -- has become the talk of the town. Yet, a dark side has emerged with some people being too greedy, emptying all the shelves in one fell swoop.

Netizens have shared those ugly stories. Some even say such thefts are no surprise.

In one clip, a man and three boys, supposedly a family, were recorded snatching everything from a community pantry in Ubon Ratchathani. Another car driver was seen emptying a pantry a few minutes after a family had just filled it. In Nakhon Sawan, there was a commotion when people skirmished as they struggled to grab various items.

No one denies that Thais tend to have nam jai, especially during challenging times like this. That's why the "pantries", known as tu pan sook, an initiative of a volunteer group, are always filled and have grown in number. As of yesterday, there were community pantries in all 77 provinces.

The project seems to have proceeded very well. Twitter users have noticed this too, and become wary about the Prime Minister Operations Centre (PMOC) sharing pictures of community pantries in different areas, adding hashtags "the cupboard that shares happiness" and the state slogan "no one is left behind". (Of course, criticism has arisen as netizens suspect the PMOC might be trying to claim credit for the noble scheme).

Although we have more or less similar ways of sharing and/or giving, the idea of an unattended donation system is very new to Thais. The identities of donors and recipients are unknown, as is the amount of stuff donated and taken. Giving and taking, based on integrity, isn't yet a regular practice among us.

I would normally despise people emptying a cupboard as each person is only supposed to take what they need, leaving the rest for others. And I would condemn those arriving in cars, which would likely mean they are not underprivileged.

But do we really know what these people have been through in the six-week lockdown before they found those pantries? Or how many days or nights they went to sleep without food after losing their job?

One of the boys in Ubon Ratchathani, when asked by the person who recorded the clip, said others had actually taken far more.

Despite some unpleasant experiences, I don't think we should give up on the idea of letting people decide what to give and take. Instead, we should find ways in which people learn to give and take without being watched during the whole process.

Perhaps some may want the state to take a role in preventing unpleasantry so that the project can proceed smoothly. But any help or assistance must not be hands-on. ฺThe thing is, I don't think bureaucrats would have any good ideas to improve the system.

It should be noted that while a number of civic groups and individual volunteers have explored new ways to assist struggling communities to be independent and sustainable, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration still clings onto the archaic charity approach, handing out stuff as a kind of "giver".

In full protective gear, wearing a mask, face shield and disposable gloves, the Bangkok governor has been seen at several communities donating bags of relief supplies to the needy. There are several thousand communities in Bangkok for him to have photo-ops at. We are supposed to appreciate the perfectly organised venues where people wait in perfectly arranged seats, observing social-distancing rules, before the governor turns up to carry out his acts of kindness. Face masks make it difficult for us to see if the recipients are smiling, but their weary gestures say it all.

Indeed, some district offices including those in Phra Khanong and Bang Khen were quick to adopt their "pantries of happiness". As I was writing this commentary, photos of the district offices' "pantries" popped up on the city's FB page.

In the photos, the needy are seen queuing up, strictly observing social distancing. Donated items are neatly stacked in the cupboards. What makes the state pantries different from those of the volunteers is there is at least one city/district official monitoring the queues. What I saw seemed to be totally staged.

Will this make the recipients embarrassed? Taking what one wants in front of an official and cameras? It's clear that bureaucrats find it hard to abandon the hands-on approach.

I would not be surprised if today or tomorrow city-owned pantries were established in all 50 districts. City Hall will probably order a "uniform" cupboard. They may install CCTV cameras to keep donors and recipients under surveillance. If that happens, the city's budget will be wasted, while the principle of unattended sharing will be shattered.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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