HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 1958 he and a group of writers and journalists visited the People’s Republic of China,with which Thailand had no diplomatic relations. Upon their return Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who had seized power in a coup, ordered the travelers arrested as communist suspects. Detained without trial for eight years in Laad Yao prison.
  • During those prison years, as he wrote a book of the experience of his group, he determined to become the legal champion of the oppressed. Of the many, often obsolete, laws he has found on the books that can be employed to abuse the underprivileged, he has taken particular issue with those denying the right of the poor to remain on land they occupy.
  • The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation board of trustees recognizes “his effective and fair use of his legal skills and pen to defend those who have “less in life and thus need more in law.”

 CITATION

Safeguarding human rights poses one of the key tests for every country. The state must insure its survival against threats from right and left, from political opportunists and even terrorists. Yet the rationale for governments is first and always to protect the rights and well-being of their citizens.

When codified legal systems and courts emerged they curbed the whims of rulers and sought to provide legal equality and justice for all. However those who could afford to pay for the services of able lawyers continued to enjoy an advantage. Their wealth and status often influenced the courts before which they appeared. Yearning of the poor for prompt administration of legal justice is universal, but attorneys who have responded faithfully to this need constitute only a small, but special, fraternity.

THONGBAI THONGPAO learned the hard way that life often is unfair. Born 58 years ago into the family of a poor farmer in northeastern Thailand, he was educated through primary school in a temple. He was orphaned by age nine and worked for two years in the family rice fields before attending secondary school. Living in a Bangkok temple, working at various jobs, and with modest help from his siblings, he completed Suan Kularb College and graduated in law from Thammasat University in 1951. For the next seven years he worked as a reporter and political commentator for several Thai newspapers.

THONGBAI found his mission when his own rights were ground down by the wheels of authority. In 1958 he and a group of writers and journalists visited the People’s Republic of China,with which Thailand had no diplomatic relations. Upon their return Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who had seized power in a coup, ordered the travelers arrested as communist suspects. Detained without trial for eight years in Laad Yao prison, THONGBAI finally was acquitted by a military court in mid-1966 after Sarit had been posthumously discredited.

During those prison years, as he wrote a book of the experience of his group, he determined to become the legal champion of the oppressed. Of the many, often obsolete, laws he has found on the books that can be employed to abuse the underprivileged, he has taken particular issue with those denying the right of the poor to remain on land they occupy. His other cases have ranged from defending men and women accused of crimes they had not committed but who could afford neither bail nor legal help, to activists arrested on false charges of ties to the Communist Party of Thailand.

THONGBAI lives simply above his office, and he and his seven young volunteer lawyers sometimes use their modest fees to pay expenses for the accused they defend. Taking cases other lawyers shun, he has successfully defended against libel a newspaper whose reporters exposed the corruption of the Lord Mayor of Bangkok in the purchase of several hundred acres of land for a housing project. After the October 1976 coup a committee of lawyers joined him in securing the release of 18 students whom they proved were wrongly arrested. Even Thais abroad have elicited his concern, including four workers in Kuwait who were sentenced to death for allegedly robbing and murdering a moneychanger. He is now challenging Thailand’s proposed new Press Bill on grounds that it accords undue power to the director of police.

Despite his own struggles and his uphill battles for the rights of the needy, THONGBAI remains a warm, gregarious individual, devoted to his wife who works as a nurse, and their three children. In the finest tradition of the legal profession he maintains a strict care for accuracy and impartiality that compels respect even from many who may appear against him in court.

In electing THONGBAI THONGPAO to receive the 1984 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his effective and fair use of his legal skills and pen to defend those who have “less in life and thus need more in law.”

 RESPONSE

I consider this prestigious Award high honor not only for myself, but for my fellow countrymen and my country. The honor I receive today is a symbol of the victory of right and justice. It represents a victory of human rights over tyranny and oppressors who wittingly or unwittingly abuse humankind.

I firmly believe in the ideals of human rights and the rule of law, which means the rule of just law. I have to stress this point because several countries have been operating under laws which are not democratic. They have been applying laws which limit and suppress the freedom and rights of the people. I cannot accept that the rule of law which runs contrary to human rights is legitimate rule.

I agree with and support the faith of the late President Ramon Magsaysay in human values, in freedom and in peace. This faith is a great and mighty power which is essential for the building of this world into a place of lasting peace and happiness. I abhor and am enraged by injustice. I abhor and am enraged by the suppression of freedom and human rights.

The failure to respect human rights and the lack of appreciation of human values, lead people to look down on others, to hate and despise them, to oppress them and to abuse them. This in turn leads to a fight, a struggle to oppose the tyranny. It leads to the use of force and to destruction, which is a tragedy for humankind.

The majority of the people in the world are still living amidst great hardship, hunger and suffering. A great number of people are leading a bitter existence because of poverty and the power of tyrants and oppressors. To help our fellow human beings escape from this suffering, we can only urge all people to be aware of human values, to respect the rights of others, to be willing to share fairly in the wealth of each nation.

We must work together to get rid of all injustice, to help build a society—a world—in which all the people have freedom and can enjoy a life of honor and peace.

I will be supremely happy if my work plays just a small part in helping to bring the wishes and the faith of President Magsaysay closer to realization.

 BIOGRAPHY

“I came from a poor family,” THONGBAI THONGPAO says, “and I have had much experience with poverty, hardship, bitterness, and hunger.” Far from allowing these circumstances to defeat him, however, he became imbued with compassion and a sense of justice that has directed his entire life’s work as journalist and lawyer espousing the cause of the oppressed.

THONGBAI was born on April 12, 1926 in Maha Sarakham, capital of Maha Sarakham Province in Thailand’s impoverished northeast. His parents, Noo Thongpao and Ngao Rintharuek, rice farmers who eked out a living from their ten-acre plot of land, died by the time he was nine years old. From then on THONGBAI the youngest child, was raised and educated under the loving care of his five older brothers and sisters.

THONGBAI received his earliest schooling at Wat Klang, the Buddhist temple near his home. At the age of five he was given into the care of the abbot, Phrakhrupalad Huat, who taught his eager young pupil how to read and write and inculcated in him habits (such as rising at four or five in the morning) and rules of conduct (such as abstaining from drinking and smoking) that he has retained throughout his life. Nor were the monk’s values of simplicity and compassion forgotten in later years.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)