Residents of Thailand village, fearing bad business, vote to evict hospice for HIV sufferers

LANG NERN, Thailand (REUTERS) - "Residents of Lang Nern do not want Glory Hut Foundation to bring people with Aids to live in this community", read the white banner that went up last month after villagers voted to evict the hospice.

The vote is not legally binding, but it effectively ostracised the foundation and the 48 people living there at the time, who were given six months to leave this community of 500 near the seaside resort town of Pattaya.

"I do not hate them. They are just in the wrong place," Mr Wichien Weruwan, chief of Lang Nern, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside his home as eight other community members nodded in agreement. "Everything about Glory Hut affects the business environment and our way of life."

Thailand is often hailed as an HIV success story - having slashed infection rates and focused on awareness to combat stigma - but the gang up against Glory Hut has exposed the deep-seated discrimination that persists.

Villagers complain that Glory Hut did not seek their permission before moving in eight months ago, and worry that their presence and trash is exposing them to diseases. "We are so stressed out that the district doctors came to check the villagers' mental health. We're wondering what are we breathing in," said Lang Nern deputy chief Prasert Changlek.

One elderly man said his children did not visit him for New Year's because of Glory Hut.

However, money seems to be the crux of the problem.

Residents fear the presence of people living with HIV will deter potential investors and tenants from this former farming village now reaping the rewards of being an easy commute and less crowded alternative to Pattaya.

"Would you want to move into a house next to an HIV foundation? The people who live here want a nice environment," said Mr Sudarat Lunbab, a resident who runs a sizable real estate venture with 33 rooms.

"It's bad for us both mentally and economically," she added, her voice rising with each sentence. "I took loans from the government... there would be a lot of impact on me."

Glory Hut's eviction notice came as a shock to many. "Such an incident is an exception and really goes against the trend in Thailand. Many other communities in the country have been extremely supportive of people living with HIV," said Ms Tatiana Shoumilina, Thailand director of UNAids.

Thailand, which cut the estimated number of people infected from 143,000 in 1991 to 8,100 in 2013, is one of the few countries in the region prioritising the reduction of HIV-related stigma, Mr Shoumilina added.

Glory Hut chairman Pornsawan Christpirak, who is also HIV-positive, said the organisation posted a sign clearly explaining its plans prior to moving in, but should have consulted the villagers in person.

"We didn't need to do that in the first two places we stayed so I didn't know," Ms Pornsawan said in Glory Hut's brightly painted office. "I went and apologised, in public as well as individually, but they didn't want to talk to us."

In response to complaints that Glory Hut was dumping hazardous medical waste in the community's trash site, Ms Pornsawan says they have always disposed of hazardous waste at the Bang Lamung Hospital, a 30-minute drive away.

Since the Dec 12 vote, five hospice residents have passed away, and 18 have returned to their homes.

Funded by donors and the city of Pattaya, Glory Hut employs three nurse aides to care for the 25 people still living in its neat, cheery one-storey wooden homes - who are either too ill to move or have no family to go back to.

Ms Pornsawan said the community never discussed their grievances with Glory Hut, sending letters to government officials instead.

Nov 27 was the first time the two sides sat down to talk. Glory Hut was told to leave but refused. Fifteen days later, villagers voted with a public show of hands.

Thirty people - all from the hospice - voted for Glory Hut to stay, while 131 voted against them. After that, once-friendly neighbours stopped talking to them, Ms Pornsawan said.

Mr Mai Chaiyanit, chief of the Nongprue sub-district - where Lang Nern is located - warned there could be violence if Glory Hut insists on staying.

Their predicament has triggered an outpouring of support.

Norwegian and Thai business owners donated 99,999 baht ($3,000), and Glory Hut's Facebook page details several more gifts of food and money.

On the day the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited, Mr Pongsuang "Note" Kunprasop - founder of the Dudesweet parties in Bangkok - brought a cheque for 70,000 baht (S$2,865) raised from a New Year's party he organised.

Still, community members insist that Glory Hut leave.

"How could they just come in and start building without permission? If it was so easy for them to come in, can't they just move out? Why are they so stubborn?" asks Mr Sudarat, the owners of 33 properties.

"People who come to tell us that we can live together - they do not live here."