Thongbai Thongpao, Thailand's first human rights lawyer, is bringing a better understanding of the law to Thailand's people. In addition to serving as their protector (especially for school age youths and rural villagers), he is also seeking law reform to ensure children's rights, freedom of the press, and freedom from political persecution.
The New Idea
Thongbai believes that the law should serve and protect individuals and communities, rather than be the tool through which they are controlled by those in power. As democracy has spread in Thailand, Thongbai has shifted increasing attention to carrying out and encouraging legal education so that the poor and powerless can take better advantage of their rights and of democracy. Thongbai represents the poor who cannot defend themselves in court, especially if they are the subject of politically inspired persecution. Recent clients include primary school teachers and university students accused of "lese majeste". The lawyers working with him, assisted by a number of young volunteer lawyers, carry this load day in and day out. For the benefit of secondary school students, Thongbai prepares and distributes materials on, as well as conducts training courses regarding, their basic rights. He pays particular attention to educating young people about their rights as workers in factories. On the weekends, he and his team deliver legal basic education to the villages, concerning such vital issues as land, forestry, and family law. Again, the team focuses much of their efforts on teaching about labor laws, an understanding of which will be so critical for those who leave the villages to work in the burgeoning urban factories. Over the next several years, Thongbai hopes to spread a network of human rights legal assistance offices across Thailand's northeastern provinces. He feels that this is probably the area of the country where the largest number of violations take place given the large number of tribal and other immigrant workers. The area's low level of literacy and high levels of poverty as well as the traditional strong hand of the police and military signal a need for human rights legal protection. Furthermore, he and his wife have taken on a special project to make sure that parents, elementary school teachers, administrators, journalists, and others know of the new United Nations Declaration of Rights for Children. They are also spreading knowledge of the companion Thai laws governing children's rights in civil, commercial, and criminal law, including, the laws regarding the rape of children. Finally, Thongbai is seeking a number of specific changes in the laws. He is particularly anxious to repeal the laws enacted under various coup regimes that are easily misused for political persecution. He similarly wants to abolish a number of the laws that allow government to control the press. His third major legislative objective is to ensure maternity leave for workers.
Thongbai's strategy proceeds on three levels. First, through the casework he, his colleagues, and volunteers undertake, they are directly strengthening the arms of human rights activists in the country. The activists' work would ultimately be hollow were there not others there to back them up in both the courtroom and in the communities. Second, Thongbai knows that rights not understood and vigorously defended by their beneficiaries are hollow. Hence, his legal rights education program targets those groups he feels are most vulnerable, yet are well-positioned to do something about it: villagers in their own environment, and young people with energy and idealism just entering the work place.In addition to his own direct advocacy work, the materials Thongbai and his colleagues prepare are used widely. Although he has not convinced the government to pay for his public education efforts, he has persuaded them to encourage students and teachers to attend the human rights/legal literacy programs he provides in the schools. He backs up this direct legal education work with a concerted effort to reach the broader public through the press. In pursuing legislative change, Thongbai seeks out the most promising avenues case by case. In pursuing greater protection for free press, for example, he became the president of the Journalist Institute at Thomasatt University, thus ensuring himself a prestigious platform. When the United Nations' Declaration of Children's Rights brought that issue under a sharp and international spotlight, he seized the opportunity to press his ideas quickly and broadly across the country.
Thongbai came from a northeastern family and grew up poor. However, he managed to become educated as a lawyer and aspired to return to the northeast, where there are few lawyers, to help defend the interests of the poor. However, when he graduated from law school in Bangkok, he started work in a law firm in the city. For six months he had no income because he had no clients and had to live in a Buddhist monastery. In 1952, he took on his first case: the defense of a friend who was accused of inciting people against the government. Still, the economics of his law practice proved very disappointing. In 1953, he took on a job as a newspaper reporter covering politics to help support himself. In 1958, he and twelve other journalists were invited to visit China. While away, a coup occurred and they were arrested on their return in the airport and immediately thrown in jail. Eight years later, in 1966, he was finally released. He then set up a law firm to defend poor people who, like himself, had been unjustly accused of subversion and were unable to defend themselves.In 1975, when circumstances had considerably relaxed, he wrote a book about his experiences in jail, which quickly became a best seller. Even with such a small and precarious beginning, the firm grew into a sixteen lawyer program defending human rights of poor Thais. However, it continued to operate out of a one room office on a budget that left no room for anything but public transport, housing on the floors of temples and schools while visiting clients, and the simplest of office backup. In 1976, after the October 6 shootings, Thongbai organized and led a committee of 44 lawyers to defend the students. A number of his former clients are now members of parliament. Thongbai was elected a full Ashoka Member reflecting the fellowship's belief that he has already made a mark on history.